Nashville (B). A local theater is continuing to show some older movies on Tuesday nights, so I took advantage of the opportunity to see this famous 1975 Robert Altman film on the big screen. It’s kind of a weird, shambling movie. Basically it takes a big cast of characters that are all in Nashville, and it follows them around as they come together and disconnect in various ways over the course of several days. One unifying thread to the movie is a political campaign in full swing. An upstart third-party presidential candidate (who is heard but never seen) is campaigning relentlessly in Nashville on ideas like taxing churches, changing the national anthem, and excluding lawyers from Congress. One of his sleazy political operatives, well-played by Michael Murphy (Manhattan), is trying to recruit some country singers to perform at a rally. A fragile queen of country music (Ronee Blakley, A Nightmare on Elm Street) is trying to get her feet back under her after recovering from a serious injury. A music trio grapples with the fact that it is also a love triangle. A ditzy BBC journalist (Geraldine Chaplin, Doctor Zhivago) wanders around interviewing anybody unlucky enough to stray into her orbit. Lily Tomlin (A Prairie Home Companion) is a gospel singer. Jeff Goldblum (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) drives a massive chopper around, wears big glasses, and gets called “Tricycle Man” in the credits. There’s lots of country music, mostly pretty cheesy. And there is much, much more in this 2 hour and 40 minute slice of 1970s Americana. Although IMDB calls it a drama, it has quite a few funny moments. In short, I got a kick out of it.
The Past (A-). This new film by Iranian director/writer Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) has gotten a lot of great reviews, and I’d say they are well justified. Like A Separation, this film is a domestic drama, but it plays out somewhat like a thriller because the director continually drops new revelations that make us question and re-evaluate everything we have seen before. The set-up is not too complicated. An Iranian man named Ahmad flies to France, and we quickly learn that he is there to get divorced from his wife Marie (Berenice Bejo, The Artist), from whom he has already been separated for a few years. But then he and we are surprised to find out that Marie is already with another man, Samir, whom she intends to marry. And then we find out Samir is already married, to a woman who has been in a coma for eight months. (These revelations come so early in the film that I don’t think they really count as spoilers; many more revelations are yet to come.) Matters are complicated by Marie’s two daughters (from a marriage before her marriage to Ahmad), especially her older daughter Lucie, who is quite upset by Marie’s liaison with Samir. And then there’s Samir’s own small son Fouad, who has a really hard time adjusting to all the changes that the adults keep foisting on him. Great performances all around. The sheer number of secrets that get revealed along the course of the movie may eventually exceed plausibility, and maybe the movie is really more of a B+, but I enjoyed it so much I think I’ll keep the higher grade. Check it out.
Frozen (B+). Disney has scored another hit with this animated tale based on a story called The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen. I was feeling sort of down and looking for a pick-me-up, and Frozen did the trick quite nicely. It’s the story of Elsa and Anna, sisters and princesses of the kingdom of Arendelle. Unknown to Anna, her older sister has a hard-to-control magical power that is more of a curse–the power to conjure ice and snow and freezing blasts out of thin air. When Elsa’s power is revealed and she runs away from Arendelle, the plucky Anna sets off on a quest to find her. Along the way, Anna teams up with a surly ice entrepreneur named Kristoff, his expressive reindeer Sven, and a live snowman named Olaf. Their adventures are suitably exciting, and many of the visuals are very cool. It’s not quite top-shelf Disney–the songs are cute enough but not all that memorable, and I would have traded goofy Olaf for good old Frosty the Snowman–but those are very small flaws. Kristin Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) voices Anna; I didn’t really know any of the voices behind the other main characters. Oh, there was a cartoon short involving Mickey and Minnie before the main feature, and I didn’t think it was particularly good. But it didn’t detract from Frozen.
The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green (2012). This is a fairly recent “#1 New York Times Bestseller” according to the cover, so you may have already heard of it. It’s about two teenagers, brought together by cancer. Or, more precisely, by a cancer support group. Gus is 17, I think, and he has apparently overcome his cancer, although it cost him one of his legs. Hazel, the first-person narrator, is 16 and has terminal lung cancer, momentarily arrested by a new drug. So the phrase “star-crossed lovers” does come to mind. I thought it was a pretty good book, although the main characters just didn’t quite ring entirely true to me for some reason. Not surprisingly, a movie version is apparently being produced right now, starring It Girl Shailene Woodley (The Spectacular Now) as Hazel.
Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks (both double Oscar winners) headline this extraordinary story of how Disney’s “Mary Poppins” came to the big screen (albeit in a Disney-fied, whitewashed way). Thompson as author P.L. Travers has no intention of letting Disney turn her beloved Mary Poppins into a movie (and surely not an animated one) even though she needed money and books a trip to California in 1961 to pacify her agent. The movie details the 20 year pursuit by Disney (in order to fulfill a promise to his daughters) to bring Poppins to the screen and particularly, the two weeks Travers spent at Disney studios working on the movie. Thompson, as the prickly, buttoned-up Travers, seems almost overly obstreperous until you hear the actual tapes of the sessions between the real Travers and the Disney team (don’t forget to stay after the credits to hear these!); you will realize she held back. There is an interesting tension between Disney’s attempt to keep a promise to his children and the many promises Travers’ father failed to keep to her. Some reviewers thought there were too many flashbacks of Travers’ childhood, though I did not find them intrusive. It is only when Disney reveals some of his own rough childhood that Travers consents to make the movie. Perhaps a lesson to us all that communication requires honest transparency on each part.
I liked American Hustle more than The Movie Snob. I would give it an A and totally understand why it won the Golden Globe for best comedy/musical. I found the opening scene a microcosm of the entire movie and a comment about life. Christian Bale (who underwent quite a physical transformation from his Batman days) is putting the finishing touches on his elaborate comb-over as he prepares to leave for the day. The things we do to feel comfortable going out in the world are a little bit of a con job. How much of it do we believe? How much are we really fooling others? In some ways, we are all conning each other and ourselves—just as these characters do. Sometimes we want to believe the façade we see even though clues abound. Bradley Cooper’s complete and utter confusion when he realizes Amy Adams’ character is not British is a good example. Cooper has the finesse to be totally believable as the FBI agent who thinks slightly higher of himself than he ought. J. Law rocks the ‘70s hair and makeup. The crazy schemes are a wacky laugh-out-loud romp.
Another good movie I saw recently was Philomena. B+. Judi Dench and Steve Coogan bring life to a real woman’s story about being forced by nuns to give her son up for adoption as an unwed, teenager mother. Stephen Frears (The Queen; High Fidelity) directed a well-paced, heartwarming tale in the style of an odd-couple buddy movie. The Catholic Church is scrutinized and found wanting for its treatment of young girls and their fatherless infants. You will leave the theater googling to find out how much is true (hint: all of it). Seeing the real Philomena at the Golden Globes was a kick.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (B). Well, I feel like I liked this movie better than I liked the first installment of The Hobbit, but I see now that I gave both movies a “B.” Of course, the movie is way too long, at 2 hours and 41 minutes, but the events and incidents seem weightier than the ones that crowded the first movie. Part of the padding is that Peter Jackson shows what happens when Gandalf (Ian McKellen, Gods and Monsters) goes off alone to confront an evil sorcerer called “the Necromancer,” which as I recall happens entirely “off-stage” in the novel. But the main story is still about a small band of dwarves wanting to take their ancestral kingdom under The Lonely Mountain back from Smaug, the terrifying dragon that occupied it some decades ago. Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, The World’s End) proves himself invaluable as their hired thief. Smaug is a pretty impressive feat of CGI (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch, 12 Years a Slave). And I have no quarrel with the casting of the lovely Evangeline Lilly (The Hurt Locker) as non-Tolkien character Tauriel the Elf Warrior. But the movie certainly could have been shorter.