Thursday, December 20, 2007

End-of-the-year entertainment


It's almost the end of the year, and time to haul out what studios think/hope will be the holiday blockbusters. Or at least movies that people, including grownups, might want to see. Let's see what happens.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Directed by Tim Burton

Tim Burton + Johnny Depp = some pretty interesting cinema. These guys have collaborated quite a bit over the last couple of decades, and they certainly seem to be on the same wavelength. Their latest project is Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, based on the Stephen Sondheim musical first produced on Broadway. Because film and theater are such different mediums, the material changed significantly when it was adapted. To further complicate things, Johnny Depp and his co-star Helena Bonham Carter, although fine actors, aren't really singers. The bad news: if you loved the musical on stage, you'll find that the film is different from the play, including the fact that songs are missing or truncated. The good news: the film looks great, the performances are strong, and for a couple of non-singers, Depp and Bonham Carter sound pretty darned good. TVOR has not seen the stage version, so didn't miss the missing bits at all. The supporting cast includes Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, and Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat), but the real standout in that group is young Ed Sanders, as Toby, the orphan boy who ends up working in Mrs. Lovett's pie shop.

This type of film really isn't TVOR's thing, but it was well done, and she enjoyed it. One thing to be aware of, though: this movie is bloody. REALLY bloody. It is, after all, about a guy who slits people's throats, after which his landlady grinds the victims up and bakes them into meat pies. It's very stylized, definitely over the top, and therefore easier to watch than something more realistic, but even so, the film is not for the squeamish. Yet in its own creepy and disgusting way, it's a thing of beauty.

Charlie Wilson's War
Directed by Mike Nichols
Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin

If for some reason you're not into serial murder and cannibalism as holiday entertainment, Hollywood has an alternative for you. And I do mean Hollywood. Charlie Wilson's War is Hollywood movie making. As in movie stars playing people who are supposedly real people but you're always aware that they're movie stars, speaking dialog that is witty and intelligent in ways that we wish actual conversation was, in a story that could be sort of real but not really.

That said, Charlie Wilson's War is Hollywood on a good day. It's the true story (Hollywood-ized, of course) of U.S. Congressman Charlie Wilson of Texas who almost single-handedly managed to get arms and money to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan to aid in their fight against the Soviet army in the 1980's. "But wait", you're thinking, "aren't the Mujahideen the fighters who were in the mountains of Afghanistan and then some stuff happened and then there was Al Qaeda a few years later?" Well, that's a discussion for another time. This is a Hollywood movie. It's well-directed (by Mike Nichols), well-written (by Aaron Sorkin) and the Hollywood stars glitter appropriately (although Julia Roberts wears bad blonde wigs). The film comes alive, though, when Philip Seymour Hoffman is on screen, playing a CIA agent. Fortunately, he's around a lot. This isn't the greatest film, but it's light and entertaining. It could come in handy if you need to keep some people entertained.

Video notes:

TVOR's favorite Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaboration is their first--Edward Scissorhands. It's beautiful and sweet and there's even a Christmas connection, for those who are looking for seasonal entertainment.

Mike Nichols has directed a lot of good movies. The early ones are the best. He made the amazing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, The Graduate, Catch-22, and Carnal Knowledge, just to name a few. Talk about a portrait of an era. You could do a lot worse than to have yourself a mini Mike Nichols festival. In fact, TVOR thinks she might need to have one herself.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A couple of films by people who know how to make them


The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Screenplay by Ronald Harwood from the memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby

This movie sounds at first like something you'd want to stay away from. Don't. It tells the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of Elle, who at the age of 42 suffered a massive stroke, leaving his mental faculties intact, but his body paralyzed, with the exception of his left eyelid. You've probably seen inspirational weepers with a basic story outline something like this, but The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is not one of those. This is not a disease/accident/medical drama, where the noble afflicted person and/or family bravely make lemonade out of lemons. This film is about the life that was going on in the brain, behind the blinking eyelid, which he used to spell out, letter by letter, the book on which the film is based. And it’s also about the film-making style of Julian Schnabel, the artist and filmmaker who directed the movie. Schnabel gets into the head—as he imagines it, anyway—of Bauby, and the film is made very much from that perspective.

TVOR doesn’t want to say too much more. Just that you should see it. It’s going to be showing up on a lot of 10-best lists for the year and that’s entirely warranted. The excellent cast is led by Mathieu Amalric. (The money men originally wanted to have Johnny Depp play the part, and the movie made in English. Instead we got Mathieu Amalric and French. And filming in the actual hospital where much of it took place. This is all good.) See The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. You’ll be in for an amazing experience.

I'm Not There
Directed and co-written by Todd Haynes

TVOR liked this film. She didn't totally get it, but she liked it. It's about Bob Dylan, but there's nobody in it named Bob Dylan. There are six characters who represent certain aspects of Dylan at different times, and the characters and the filming style surrounding each are very different. Yet it somehow makes a whole. The best Dylan-like character was played by Cate Blanchett, although there was an African-American kid who was awfully good too. Do you get TVOR's drift here? The soundtrack was excellent--some Dylan by Dylan, some Dylan by other people. If you like Bob Dylan, and are willing to sit back and just experience this consistently interesting film, go for it. Because I'm Not There is not just about Bob Dylan, it's about the times. Which are a-changing. If this sounds like it's a bit much for you, you may be right, you should probably just stay home.

Video notes:

Mathieu Amalric may not be familiar to you. He had a smallish role in Steven Spielberg’s Munich, but really shines in Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen, a French drama in which the characters’ stories unfold in surprising ways.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

TVOR goes PG


Directed by Kevin Lima

TVOR had an unusual experience recently. She went to a PG movie--a Disney movie, no less. She rarely goes to movies with people under 30 in the audience, much less actual children. She is happy to report that, based on her experience, there is at least one movie out there right now that is entertaining to both children and adults. At least this adult. And girl children. Little boys were pretty scarce in the theater where TVOR saw the movie, so she's not sure about them.

Enchanted starts out in familiar Disney territory. There's Giselle, an animated heroine, singing and working in her forest home in the kingdom of Andalasia with her little animated animal friends. We learn that there is a handsome prince in search of a bride, and his wicked stepmother is determined to make sure he doesn't find one. Then, of course, things happen, and our heroine is suddenly and rudely transported from animated Andalasia to the very real (at least, to the extent that anything is real in a Disney film) Times Square. Giselle is now played by the three-dimensional Amy Adams, and is, not surprisingly, very disoriented. Then more things happen, most of which are very entertaining. And tuneful.

Enchanted is both a celebration and a send-up of Disney-style fairy tales, and it works remarkably well. Amy Adams is wonderful as Giselle--she really makes the movie. The film falls apart a little bit at the end, but its faults are minor and forgivable. If you plan on going to the movies soon with a little girl, this is the one to see. And if you're not, you might just need to see it anyway.

Video notes:

Amy Adams was nominated for an Oscar for her supporting role in Phil Morrison's Junebug. This little film travelled the festival circuit, but wasn't widely seen in theaters and is a nice one to catch on video. In it, a Chicago art dealer travels with her new husband to the rural south to meet her in-laws. The film isn't predictable and respects all of its characters, refusing to make them caricatures. This is the first time many of us saw Amy Adams, and she was impressive.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Bring on the quality!


It must be December. Some really good films are coming out.

Directed by Joe Wright
Screenplay by Christopher Hampton, from the novel by Ian McEwen

Putting novels on screen is a tricky business. Especially when they're good. There's so much more at risk than when they're trashy, pulp fiction. So it was with some trepidation that TVOR approached Atonement, a novel she had read and liked. A novel that didn't seem like a great candidate for a screen adaptation. But fortunately, the filmmakers involved with this project did it right. Christopher Hampton wrote an excellent script, and the license that was taken with the novel made it, for the most part, a better film than a stricter interpretation would have been. (TVOR has a quibble with the final minute or two of the film, but that's a fairly minor flaw.) Joe Wright, the director, has only directed one film previously, the recent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley. He really got this one right, though.

The story is one of a horrible mistake that is made, and the effect it has on all the people involved. The cast is made up of talented actors led by Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. Many of the others will not be well known to American audiences, although Vanessa Redgrave shows up in a small but important role.

TVOR doesn't want to say too much about this film, but will leave you with this: This is a film in which sometimes bad things happen to good people. But it's one of the top films TVOR has seen this year. She thinks it's worth it.

The Savages
Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney. Need I say anything more? Well, yes, actually. Tamara Jenkins. She wrote the script and directed these two fine actors in her excellent second film The Savages, a film that gives them fascinating, complicated characters to play, and room to work their magic. And they really do it. They play siblings whose father is losing it and needs institutional care. This isn't a film about the aging person falling apart, however. It's more a film about how two people, somewhat damaged but doing the best they can, deal with this and attempt to move on with their lives. It's the kind of subject matter that could get really goopy, and TVOR is happy to report that the goopiness level is zero. Jenkins' script and direction, and the actors' ability to be utterly convincing, make sure that doesn't happen. See it.

Video notes:

Tamara Jenkins made her first film almost ten years ago. (She's not prolific, but you can't argue with the quality of her work.) The Slums of Beverly Hills is a semi-autobiographical story of a teenage girl and her siblings whose divorced father is determined to keep his kids in the Beverly Hills school system. He accomplishes this by dragging them from one crappy apartment in the famous zip code to another. (Yes, there are crappy apartments in Beverly Hills). Natasha Lyonne plays the daughter, and Marisa Tomei and Jessica Walter are in the supporting cast. This is definitely one to check out on video.

The Namesake, Mira Nair's adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel, is now out on video. The film tells the story of a family of Indian immigrants to the United States, but the issues are relevant to most of us in this country populated by immigrants. Take a look.

Waitress, writer/director Adrienne Shelley's last film, is also available on video now. It's lovely film and a wonderful tribute to this artist, who was deprived of the long career she should have enjoyed.