April 14, 2013
Sometimes it’s better to accept the plot of a movie and move on. The Magic of Belle Isle is a case in point.
This feel-good film, released in 2012, was written by Guy Thomas and directed by Rob Reiner. The story concerns Monte Wildhorn (Morgan Freeman), who was once a successful author of novels about a cowboy named Jubal McLaws. Disappointments in his life have dried up his creativity, and he is spending a summer at a borrowed house in fictional Belle Isle (actually Greenwood Lake, N.Y.), where he plans to drink and be disagreeable.
Partly due to his Victorian manners, he grudgingly develops relationships with people in the neighborhood, including Charlotte O’Neil (Virginia Madsen) the attractive divorcee next door, and her three daughters.
Monte especially becomes engaged with Charlotte’s middle daughter, Finnegan (Emma Fuhrmann), for whom the concept of imagination is elusive. There is also an undisguised chemistry between Monte and Charlotte — an improbable couple by reason of their widely different ages.
In a side plot not wholly irrelevant to the main story, the O’Neil children are going through the pain of separation from their father — an issue that creates a great deal of tension between Charlotte and her oldest girl, Willow (Madeline Carroll).
There is also a sidebar concerning Monte’s positive influence on a mentally or emotionally challenged young man (Ash Christian) who likes to hop around town like a bunny.
If one wonders too hard about how Monte, who has no use of his left arm and leg, can manage to do all the things that go along with living alone, or how he can drink as much as he does and sober up enough to be a good neighbor … well, if wonders too hard about a lot of things in this story, one may miss the benefits of good acting by a talented cast, a visually pleasing presentation, and a little optimism about human nature.
March 19, 2013
Sometimes a mesmerizing movie is one that leaves you uncertain as to what you just saw. Jellyfish (Meduzot in Hebrew) — a 2007 Israeli film, fits that category.
This dramatic comedy, or is it comic drama — see what I mean? — is based on a story by Shira Geffen. The subject matter is the frustrating lives of three women living in Tel Aviv. On the one hand, they are all lonely and downbeat — “resigned” might be the best term — but at the same time there is a spark of humor and warmth in the connections among them.
Batya, played by Sarah Adler, works somewhat ineptly in a dead-end job at a banquet hall. She is fired by her boorish boss, thrown over by her boyfriend, and neglected by her high-profile mother. Not unexpectedly, Batya isn’t in a good mood most of time, but her life is charmed when she encounters a mysterious mute little girl (Nikol Leidman) who wades out of the sea with a flotation tube around her waist and no other visible means of support, notably parents.
Things don’t go much better for Keren, played by Noa Knoller, a newly married bride whose Caribbean honeymoon is derailed before it starts when she breaks her leg while trying to climb out of a locked bathroom stall. And Joy (Ma-nenita De LaTorre), an immigrant who cares for a disagreeable old woman, is lonely for the son she left behind in the Philippines.
Clearly, a strain of melancholy runs through this film, but in the end it is not a downer. While it portrays the weightiness of everyday urban life, it also explores the undramatic but positive things that can touch people when their lives intersect.
February 22, 2013
The book is heavily illustrated, and some of the pictures are photographs of people who were held in slavery in this country. I often pause over pictures like that, studying the faces. The faces remind me of the painful fact that epochs such as American slavery, Jim Crow, and the Holocaust were about the injustice and pain inflicted on individual men, women, and children.
The 1990 film The Long Walk Home makes that point with a sharp impact. The story, originally written by John Cork when he was a student at the University of Southern California, is set in Montgomery, Alabama, during the bus boycott of 1955-1956. That was the seminal protest against racial discrimination on the city’s transit system, sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to surrender her seat to a white man. The stand taken by Rosa Parks inspired a boycott of the bus system by black citizens of Montgomery and eventually led to a ruling by the U.S. Supreme court that the racially discriminatory laws in Montgomery were unconstitutional and must be vacated.
The cast of The Long Walk Home includes Whoopie Goldberg as Odessa Carter, a maid employed by Miriam Thompson, played by Sissy Spacek.
Miriam Thompson is affected by the boycott, because Odessa won’t ride the bus, and the long walk, besides being grueling, makes her late for work each morning. Miriam’s partial solution to that is to pick up Odessa two mornings a week, a decision that Miriam’s husband, Norman (Dwight Schultz), goaded by his redneck brother, Tunker (Dylan Baker), vehemently objects to. The growing tension in the Thompson family over this issue, and her observation of Odessa’s ordeal, lead Miriam to re-examine her own values and her place in the roiling civil rights issue in the city.
This is a good movie in many respects, including Whoopi Goldberg’s understated performance as a woman who solemnly decides that she has had enough of being patronized, de-humanized, and humiliated. It’s important that she is portrayed in the midst of her own family, her husband and children. Shifting the point of view to this setting reminds us that racial discrimination didn’t do violence to some abstract principle; it did violence to regular people who were trying to live as human beings and citizens.
January 5, 2013
Turner Classics the other night broadcast a fascinating relic of World War II, a dark comedy entitled To Be or Not to Be, starring Carole Lombard and Jack Benny. This 1942 film, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, is set in Warsaw during the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany. The plot concerns a troupe of Polish actors who use the tools of their art to upend a plan by the Nazis to identify and track down families of Polish airmen fighting against the Third Reich.
Benny and Lombard play a married couple, Josef and Maria Tura, who are popular Shakespearean actors in the city. A young Polish airman, Stanislav Sobinski, played by 23-year-old Robert Stack, has become enamored of Maria and she, appreciating the attention, begins a clandestine romance with him. Josef deduces that the two are having an affair after Sobinski repeatedly leaves the theater to meet Maria just as Josef is beginning to recite the “to be or not to be” speech in Hamlet.
Sobinski, however, is sent off to England where he meets Alexander Siletsky, a Nazi spy who pretends to be a member of the Polish resistance in order to gather information about anti-German activists. In a conversation with Siletsky, Sobinski mentions Maria Tura and is suspicious when the supposed denizen of Warsaw doesn’t recognize her name.
Based on Sobinski’s description of Maria, Siletsky, who travels to Poland to deliver to the Nazis a list of the families of Polish airmen, determines to enlist the actress as an informant. When he meets her, he also takes a more personal interest in her. But Sobinski has informed his superiors of his suspicions about Siletsky and is sent back to Warsaw to warn the resistance. When the acting company learns of this, they determine that the only solution is to murder Siletsky before he can turn over the names.
The plot proceeds as a classic farce in which one of the actors poses as Adolf Hitler in order to hoodwink the German authorities.
This film (which Mel Brooks remade in 1983) is regarded as a comedy classic, but it was controversial in its time. Some folks were uncomfortable with the humorous approach to the situation in Europe, which was anything but funny. Lubitsch began this project with Jack Benny in mind for the lead. Benny, whose birth name was Benjamin Kubelsky, met some resistance first-hand when his father, Meyer, walked out of the theater, scandalized by the sight of his son in Nazi uniform. Meyer reputedly changed his mind under Benny’s influence and eventually saw the movie more than forty times. Despite its humor, the film is very dark, though, and emphasizes the level of destruction the Germans rained on Warsaw.
To Be or Not to Be was the last film for Carole Lombard, who was the highest-paid Hollywood star at the time. Before this movie was released, she was killed in a plane crash while returning from a U.S. Bond tour.
The first American film to attack Hitler and Nazism through ridicule was You Natzy Spy! a short subject by The Three Stooges. That was followed a few months later by Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s first true sound film and his first commercial success. In that movie, which appeared in 1940, before the United States and Germany were at war, Chaplin mercilessly pillories Hitler, fascism, anti-Semitism, and Benito Mussolini.
Walt Disney got into the act on January 1, 1943, by releasing In Der Fuhrer’s Face, a propaganda cartoon in which Donald Duck has a nightmare in which he is forced to work on the assembly line of a munitions factory in “Nutziland.” This film included some broad German, Japanese, and Italian caricatures, including send-ups of Hitler and Mussolini. The cartoon featured a song that had been recorded and already released by Spike Jones: “When the Fuhrer says, ‘We are the master race,’ we heil, we hiel, right in der Fuhrer’s face”
You can watch a high-quality video of this cartoon at THIS LINK.
December 27, 2012
I have written in this space about several movies that had time-travel themes, but none so elegant as From Time to Time, a 2009 British production directed by Julian Fellowes.
The story is set in a country estate in England at the end of World War II. A 13-year-old boy named Tolly, played by Alex Etel, is sent to stay at the old house with his grandmother, Mrs. Oldknow, played by Maggie Smith. Mrs. Oldknow’s son — who is Tolly’s father — has been missing in action, and Tolly is holding onto a conviction that his dad is still alive. Tolly’s mother, who has had a cool relationship with Mrs. Oldknow, is occupied with trying to determine her husband’s fate, and she believes Tolly would be safer in the country until the war is over.
Tolly is very interested in the house and in his ancestors who have lived there, and he is distressed to learn that his grandmother, who has a great affection for her home and loves to tell Tolly stories about its past, can no longer afford to keep the place up and is planning to sell it.
As Tolly explores the house and the grounds, he begins slipping from the mid-twentieth century into a time two hundred years before. He enters a room and finds it occupied by his ancestors and their retinue. Chief among these figures is the master of the house, a magnanimous sea captain played by Hugh Bonneville. Most of these shadows are unaware of Tolly, but one who is immediately sensible of his presence is Capt. Oldknow’s blind young daughter, Susan (Eliza Bennett). Susan is inadvertently the cause of a family crisis when Capt. Oldknow returns from one of his voyages with a black boy, a fugitive American slave named Jacob (Kwayedza Kureya). This lad, the captain announces, is to be a companion for Susan, and he is to be treated as a member of the household, not as a servant. This is met by resistance from Capt. Oldknow’s restless wife, Maria (Carice van Houten), his spoiled son Sefton (Douglas Booth), and from a none too disinterested servant named Caxton (Dominic West). The jealousy and antagonism directed at Jacob when the captain is away from home sets off a chain of events that results in a mystery that is not resolved until Tolly, the inquisitive time traveler, sorts it out.
This movie gets only fair to middlin’ reviews, but we found it entertaining and engaging. The quirky characters, including Pauline Collins as the latter-day household’s outspoken cook, Mrs. Tweedle, and Timothy Spall as the gruff Dickensian handyman whose bloodline has a critical place in the Oldknow family history.
Like a lot of people, I suspect, I have been fascinated by the idea of time travel since I was a kid and have fantasized about the day when I myself could visit the past. According to a physics book I read not long ago, time travel to the future is possible, but time travel to the past is out of the question. It’s not out of the question in the movies, though, so that’s where I do it, and it has never been more fun than in this film.
December 23, 2012
If you’re not in love with Sam and Amanda Jaeger after watching Take Me Home, promise me you’ll get professional help.
This 2011 film was written and directed by Sam Jaeger, who also plays the male lead. That character is Thom, a photographer who hasn’t been able to make a living with his art. He scrapes out a mean existence by illegally driving a New York City cab he bought at an auction, but even that is not enough to pay his rent, and he is evicted.
At this low point in his life, Thom meets Claire (Amanda Jaeger), a competent exec at a non-profit organization who discovers that her husband has been having an affair. This occurs almost simultaneously with news that her estranged father is seriously ill in California.
With her head spinning, Claire hails Thom’s cab, tells him to drive without a destination and then is surprised to find herself in eastern Pennsylvania. After the shock wears off, she tells Thom to take her to California, but stops in Las Vegas to visit her quirky but amiable mother, Jill, played by Lin Shaye.
Claire eventually learns that Thom is penniless and that being a legitimate cab driver isn’t the only thing he has lied about. And since she left home without plan or preparation, her own resources are dwindling. Stuck with each other, they more or less claw their way to their destination despite several delays, a potential felony, and one real disaster. The experience inspires both of them to think again about how they have been living.
As outrageous as the odyssey seems, this is a believable and visually interesting story, amusing and thought-provoking at the same time. All of the performances are subtle and effective, and the Jaegers are irresistable.
November 22, 2012
When we took a bus tour of London many years ago, the guide pointed out that all the iron work outside the apartment windows was painted black. She said this practice dated to the reign of Queen Victoria, who was so distraught by the death of her husband, Prince Albert, that she called for the paint job as a sign of mourning. That sounded a little hokey to me, but it made a good story.
Victoria’s mourning for Albert, who died in 1861, was no joke, however. The queen was plunged into a lengthy state of depression, and lived a comparatively isolated life for a British monarch, although surrounded by her children and official household. One person who managed to pierce the shell around the queen was John Brown, a Scottish servant. Their relationship is the subject of the 1997 film “Mrs. Brown,” which stars Judy Dench as Victoria and Billy Connolly as Brown.
The queen had retired to Balmoral Castle after her husband’s death, and Brown — who had a long-standing association with the family — was sent there principally to care for her pony and accompany her when she chose to ride.
From the start, Brown showed the queen none of the truckling deference she was accustomed to. In fact he spoke to her rather bluntly, addressing her as “woman,” and said exactly what was on his mind. This appealed to Victoria, and she started to rely more and more on Brown’s advice, and he more and more took control of the affairs of the castle, and particularly of anything that had to do with the comings and goings of the queen.
This development along with Brown’s abrupt personality and penchant for drinking irritated pretty much everyone else in the household, especially Albert Edward, the prince of Wales, the queen’s son and later King Edward VII. Meanwhile, there was mounting pressure for Victoria to become more visible to her subjects — pressure that included a movement in Parliament to deinstitutionalize the monarchy. At first Brown supported the queen in her resistance to this pressure, but his change of heart on the matter led to a crisis in their relationship.
To what extent, if any, there was a romance between Victoria and John Brown is still a matter of conjecture. Certainly folks at the time thought there was something afoot, and that’s why the queen was derisively referred to as “Mrs. Brown.”
Although certain aspects of the story are fictionalized in this account, the movie basically portrays real events. The film was made by the BBC for television, but instead it was released as a theatrical property and made a lot of money. The performances, including Anthony Sher’s turn as a foppish Benjamin Disraeli, are outstanding. Judi Dench won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for an Oscar.
November 4, 2012
Knowing that a storm visitor was a fan of Judy Garland, I picked out Babes in Arms from the On Demand list, and wound up watching it myself. I did that because this 1939 film was based on a 1937 Broadway musical by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. I’ve always been curious about that show, but I’ve never seen it produced on stage. I knew well before the movie was over that the stage show has to have been better.
This was one of the “let’s put on a show” movies that Garland made with Mickey Rooney. It turns out that it was only loosely based on the Broadway show. In fact, I have since read that once the brains at MGM got the rights to the show, they made wholesale changes to the script and threw out all the songs except the unmemorable title song and the memorable “Where or When,” which was introduced on Broadway by Ray Heatherton (who later had a long run on television as the “Merry Mailman”) and Mitzi Green.
That means, that MGM — specifically producer Arthur Freed — cut “My Funny Valentine,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “Johnny One Note,” and “That’s Why the Lady is a Tramp” (which is heard only as incidental background music). Freed added two old songs of his own — “I Cried for You” and “You Are My Lucky Star” — and he and Nacio Herb Brown wrote “Good Mornin’” especially for this movie. E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen, who had contributed three classic songs to The Wizard of Oz, were employed on this movie to write “God’s Country,” a heavy-handed finale that was influenced by the war under way in Europe.
This film was directed by Buzby Berkeley in an era when the canteen didn’t stock de-caf coffee. It is, in a word, exhausting. The production numbers with their quick-step marches are dated and Rooney in particular, as talented as he is, is manic — a fault that is made more conspicuous by the fact that Garland’s performance is comparatively understated.
Apparently there was some racially insensitive material in the Broadway production, and there is an offensive minstrel sequence in the movie. Blackface was common into the 1950s; in fact, when I was a kid, my parish used to stage annual minstrels complete with end men in burnt cork exchanging idiotic banter with “Mr. Interlocutor.” It’s as hard to watch now as it should have been then.
I’ve read some attempts to rationalize this display, including one argument that the caricatures were mild, but there is nothing mild about Rooney’s lampooning in particular. He’s Jolson in overdrive.
There is a clever number in which Rooney and Garland do good-natured send ups of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. This scene was cut from copies of the film distributed after FDR died in 1945, but it has been restored and is one of the most worthwhile things in the movie.
October 23, 2012
On one of our first dates, I took Pat, now my wife, to see a major production of South Pacific, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Betsy Palmer played Nellie Forbush and William Chapman played Emile de Becque. Neither of us had ever seen the show on stage, but both of us had seen the 1958 film with Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi (with Giorgio Tozzi dubbing Brazzi’s songs), and both of us owned the cast albums from that film and from the original Broadway production with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza.
The musical play, which first appeared in 1949, was based on James Minchener’s 1947 book, Tales of the South Pacific. This book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is a collection of loosely connected stories based on Michener’s experiences as a Navy officer on the island of Espiritu Santo. I find it an absorbing book because of its ability to transport the reader into the unique environment of the Pacific Islands during that war.
Rodgers and Hammerstein combined three of Michener’s stories to create the musical play, and they determined to deal with two instances in which romantic liaisons were disrupted by racial prejudice. One of those situations arises when Navy nurse Nellie Forbush, whose previous life experience was confined to Little Rock, Arkansas, falls in love with French planter Emile de Becque but discovers that he had previously lived and had children with a Polynesian woman. For reasons that she herself cannot articulate, Nellie is repulsed by the idea, and she undergoes a wrenching internal struggle.
The other conflict involves a Marine lieutenant, Joe Cable, who falls in love with a Tonkinese girl who is not yet an adult, but refuses to marry the girl because of the color of her skin. In a scene in which De Becque and Cable discuss their contradictory crises, De Becque declares that he does not believe that racial prejudice is inborn, and Cable punctuates that idea with a lyric: “You have to be taught to hate and fear / You have to be taught from year to year / It has to be drummed in your dear little ear / You have to be carefully taught … to hate all the people your relatives hate.”
This lyric brought opprobrium down on Rodgers and Hammerstein from some quarters in the United States. Cable’s song was described as not only indecent, because by implication it encouraged interracial sex and — God forbid! — breeding, but that it was pro-communist because who but a communist would carry egalitarianism so far? Some Georgia politicians actually tried to stifle the song through legislation. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s position was that the song was about what the play was about and that, even if it sank the show, the song would stay.
We saw the recent revival of South Pacific at the Lincoln Center twice, and this past weekend, we had the opportunity to see it again in a production at the non-profit Ritz Theatre in Haddon Township, New Jersey. One of the impediments to mounting this show is that it requires an outstanding cast and company; it can’t be faked. The Ritz was up to that challenge in every respect. In fact, Pat and I agreed that Anabelle Garcia was the best Nellie Forbush we had ever seen.
South Pacific was written shortly after World War II. The original production won a Pulitzer Prize and ten Tony Awards. In fact, sixty-two years later, it is still the only musical to win all four Tony Awards for acting.
What is striking about South Pacific is that although it is necessarily performed entirely in the milieu of the 1940s, it does not get old. Racism is still a serious issue in the United States, and some of the criticism directed at this show for addressing that issue sounds disturbingly like rhetoric we can still hear today.
September 12, 2012
Henri Verneuil created a moving reflection on family ties and cultural roots in his 1992 film, the partly autobiographical 588 rue paradis. The French-language film, which Verneuil wrote and directed, concerns playwright Pierre Zakar (Richard Berry), who has been influenced by his socially ambitious wife Carole (Diane Bellego) to change his name from the Armenian Azad Zakarian, distance himself from his working-class background, and keep his parents at arm’s length. Carole is particularly determined that the couple’s two children not be influenced by their Armenian heritage.
As the film opens, Pierre is anticipating the Paris opening of one of his plays, and he has invited his father, Hagop (Omar Sharif), to attend. Carole arranges for the elderly man, who for decades has worked along with his wife and other family members as a shirtmaker, to stay in a ridiculously large suite in a sumptuous hotel — and not in his son’s home.
Pierre lets Carole know that he doesn’t approve of this arrangement, but he doesn’t insist on changing it. Instead, he spends as much time with his father as possible, making excuses for Carole, who has deliberately sent the children off on a trip so that they won’t see and be contaminated by their grandfather.
Throughout this period, the inscrutable Pierre entertains memories of his childhood, some more pleasant than others, but especially of his mother, Araxi (Claudia Cardinale), whom he calls “mayrig,” an affectionate Armenian term for mother. He also meets a young Armenian woman whose humility and earnestness contrast sharply with Carole’s personality.
While Hagop is still in Paris, an unexpected magazine article about the Zakarian family appears, and Carole uses the occasion to goad Pierre into reprimanding his father, something Pierre will forever regret. This incident and its aftermath is the stimulus for a long delayed confrontation between Pierre and Carole and for a decision by Pierre about taking control of his own life.
Even with Omar Sharif and Claudia Cardinale as worthy distractions, Berry is irresistible in this part. His cool exterior in contrast to the turmoil inside him effectively creates the dramatic tension that underlies this domestic story. This is Henri Verneuil’s second film about the Zakarian family; the first, in which Sharif and Cardinale played these same roles, was Mayrig in 1991.