Posts Tagged ‘movies’

51e0vTQYw1LAs a child, I loved Christmas. It was three days of absolute magic and excitement. We were out of school, and there was a steady supply of cookies to eat as we played with our new toys. My grandma had a magpie instinct and decorated her house with twinkling lights and anything that glittered: cut glass figurines, mirrors, tinsel, crystal chandeliers. Her living room had that 1960s shag carpet so deep you could only rake it, not vacuum it. It dampened the sound from her massive console record player that was on a constant loop of the Rita Ford collection A Music Box Christmas.

Note: it was three magical days. Just three. Not ten. Not thirty. Not sixty. Not an endless barrage of commercials, cheap music, bellringers, and forced cheer. As a young adult, it lost its charm about the same time my grandma began her descent into Alzheimer’s. I developed a severe gift phobia that haunts me to this day. If you want to see a look of sheer panic in my eyes, hand me a wrapped present.

It only got worse as time went on: awkward family get togethers with in-laws, the crush of commercialism, the way tragedies pile up around this holiday. At one point in my marriage, we declared a moratorium. We stayed home alone and watched movies, christening our new holiday Cinemas. No more mediocre ham dinners. No more shopping for gifts nobody really wanted. No more faking a smile as I unwrapped a denim shirt embroidered with bird houses.

Then my pop got sick and I got sucked back into family Christmas events. But I am drawing the line. I’m only keeping what I love about this holiday from my childhood. I’m not agreeing to gift exchanges among adults who can afford to buy whatever they need and want. I’m not going to church. I’m not sitting through nieces and nephew’s musical performances. Seriously, you’ll find me in the garage drinking beer during those agonizing moments. I’m not even allowing anyone to ruin my Cinemas with depressing and serious movies.

The thing I’m embracing this year is butter spritz cookies. They were a staple of my childhood Christmases, and I inherited my grandmother’s cookie press in all its retro-future aluminum and copper glory. I pressed out a batch of traditional trees and poinsettias for my friend Robert, who felt he’d not received enough Christmas treats at work. Later in the week, when I go to my sister’s house, I’m taking the cookie press with me. I might even crank up the old Music Box Christmas album.

This year, be nice to yourself. Don’t gag down the whole monstrosity of Christmas, if you don’t want to. Keep what you love and leave the rest of it behind.

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In the context of our current cultural attitudes, it sounds creepy to talk about little girls and romance, but the truth is that little girls like romance.  Not your standard, adult romance, with flowers and champagne.  Romance for little girls is often dark, scary, snatched out of the teeth of death.  Fairy tales are full of it: young girls being alternately wooed and terrorized by men they fear and/or long for. Take your pick: Beauty and the Beast, The Seven Swan Brothers, The Little Mermaid, who felt as though she walked upon knives, all for the love of a man. Pair them easily, not with the sugar-coated Disney versions, but with movies like Labyrinth, where a mysterious man offers dancing, jewels, glittering admiration, oh, but at a cost.

A pall of sexuality hangs over little girls, threatening and bizarre. You know that it does. Even if you want to look away, it’s there when you’re not looking.  I don’t believe the threatening nature of sex ever dissipates; it’s just that as little girls grow up, we acclimate ourselves to its dark nature.  We learn to avert our eyes and open our legs.

City of Lost Children

City of Lost Children

If you’re curious, I’ll add another movie to your roster of romantic films for little girls: The City of Lost Children.  I’m sure many people won’t approve of me thinking this is a children’s movie, just as people were horrified by my suggestion that Pan’s Labyrinth would be suitable for a certain kind of child. The things is, I remember how dark childhood was, how unsatisfied I was with saccharine family movies, how false they were.  I loved movies like Labyrinth, Legend, and The Dark Crystal, but often wished they were darker, more romantic.

The City of Lost Children, oddly enough, is the sort of movie I longed for at the age of ten.  Directed by Marco Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (the twisted pair that brought you Delicatessen), it often gets described as having a convoluted plot, even an impenetrable plot.  This is only true if you try to watch the movie in an adult frame of mind, if you grasp at all the random threads and try to tie them up into some macramé whole. Use your child mind and the plot is really quite simple.

Man loses his brother.  Man meets girl.   Girl helps him.  Girl dies.   Man is heartbroken, but wait!  Girl isn’t dead.  Reunion.   Man and Girl fall in love, form a family, save his brother.

All the other stuff is stage dressing: mad scientist, clones, a brain in a fish tank, evil conjoined twins, child pickpockets, stolen dreams, Santa Claus nightmares.  Fascinating, bizarre stage dressing, but not essential to the basic plot.

Miette and One

Miette and One

If “Man and Girl fall in love” disturbs you, ask yourself, “What are little girls looking for?”  Especially little girls who are fatherless.   The girl in the movie, Miette, is an orphan, but in this day and age, even girls who aren’t orphans are fatherless.   It affects their lives in myriad ways, but most importantly in the way they choose the men they love.  When she meets a circus strongman, named One, who is often simply referred to as “the big moron,” there is an immediate connection.  He needs her help, but why does she offer it?

It’s as simple as desire.  She desires him.   She desires what he represents: strength, gentleness, a big man crying over a lost little boy.   Who has cried over her?  If he is a man-child, enormous but not terribly bright or sophisticated, she is certainly a girl-woman, old before her time and jaded.

Perfect Man

Perfect Man

What makes it so romantic is that the movie doesn’t shy from it.   It doesn’t place a paternal Hollywood distance between the two mismatched characters, but dares to show a physical intimacy between them that is both childlike and portentous of adult physicality.   It dares to show a thing you’ll hardly see between two adults in a Hollywood film–a man giving a woman a foot massage.  Hovering in the periphery are further suggestions: during a visit to a tattoo parlor (seeking a map), One gets a tattoo of a heart reading “Miette pour la vie.”  Miette forever.  The sort of tattoo a sailor gets for his sweetheart.  As One rubs her feet, she asks what he plans to do after he finds his brother.  A job, he answers.  A house.  A wife What kind of wife? she asks. There is plenty of time, he assures her, to figure that out.  Plenty of time for her to grow up into that wife.



Miette is a dark-haired girl in a red dress, and after her alleged death, One goes on a drinking binge with a dark-haired prostitute in a red dress–an adult Miette.  When the real Miette arrives, she is alive but sour with jealousy.  On the darker side, when One turns against Miette and tries to kill her (this is part of the elaborate plot, with fleas armed with a brutal potion that produces violence at the sound of an organ box grinder), the violence has the quality of a wedding night deflowering.  One doesn’t want to hurt her, but he has to, is driven to it by a force he can’t control.  Miette simply accepts it, as though she expects such a thing or deserves it.  After one particularly visceral slap across the face, she gets up, crying, and waits to receive another.  When he begins to choke her, she hardly resists.

Ultimately, of course, he will save her.  She will save him.  Together they will rescue the little brother and be a family.  That’s what little girls want.

Happy Ending

Happy Ending

(As an aside, let me note that one of my favorite actors, Ron Perlman, plays the strongman One. His French is serviceable, any deficiencies in pronunciation nicely hidden under a Russian accent. The little girl playing opposite him is Judith Vittet, 9 at the time of filming, and she’s charming, cynical, broken, and strong by turns.)

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Voltaire was right about so many things, but about this above all else.  When you strive for perfection, you will always fall short, not just of perfection, but likely of goodness as well.

I’m thinking about this today as a result of going to see Watchmen last night.  (On IMAX, which I recommend for its size and clarity.  Even if the larger-than-life full frontal blue nudity is a bit more disturbing on IMAX, this is a beautiful film, worthy of the big big big screen.)

Watchmen Franchises

Watchmen Franchises

I’ve not read a lot of detailed reviews of the movie, perhaps an even dozen, but the thing that strikes me about those reviews now that I’ve seen the movie is that they were all written by disappointed people.  Not people disappointed because the movie wasn’t good.  People disappointed because the movie wasn’t perfect.  Either wasn’t perfect in and of itself, or in more cases, wasn’t a perfect adaptation of the comic book.

As a fan of the book, I enjoyed the movie.  I thought it was quite good.  (In its final story arc, I actually thought it was a bit better than the book.  I know: heresy!  Hold off with burning me at the stake, okay?)  It wasn’t perfect, and that’s a blessing.  The pressure for perfection was what kept the film from being made for years.  People described it as “unfilmable,” but only because they were laboring under the notion that the only way to do the book justice would be to create a “perfect adaptation” of it.

In short, the Ghost of Perfect almost killed a perfectly good movie.

I think it frequently happens to writers, too.  We become obsessed with making a particular story or scene or chapter perfect.  Sometimes, it’s a worthy intent: we can see that the scene isn’t right and we work to improve it.  At other times, we use the pursuit of perfection as a way to procrastinate.  Just one more round of revisions.  Just one more draft.  Then we’ll send the story out.  Then we’ll query the book.  Just a few more tweaks and it will be done.  Maybe next month.  Maybe next year.

It’s an understandable fear.  No one likes to be rejected.  Or worse, mocked.  Or worse, burned in literary effigy on the internet.   Consider the glee with which otherwise nice, supportive people are willing to tear Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown limb from literary limb on writing forums.  Consider that Alan Moore’s attitude toward the Watchmen film is one of pre-emptive disapproval.   Not perfect = not good enough to give it a chance.   He rightly observes that some of the elements of Watchmen are only suited to comic books, but shouldn’t that let the film off the hook for those elements?  Shouldn’t it get to stand on its own for what it is: a movie?

A pretty good movie.

Similarly, if you find yourself bound up in thinking, “I’m never going to be as talented as [fill in the blank with your literary god],” you will always fall short.  No matter what you write, it will never be perfect.  You can never replicate the genius of another writer.  Your writing must stand on its own for what it is, whatever it is.

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slumdog_millionaireAfter my disappointing Cinemas, I finally got to see Slumdog Millionaire on Saturday.  It did not disappoint.  I’m a fan of Danny Boyle and you can’t help but be impressed by his ability to pull this film together into something extraordinary.  The movement among the different time lines of the story is deft and poignant.  Just as important, the pathos of tragedy never descends into bathos,  perhaps because the film makes clear that this is one more tragedy in a sea of millions of sad, desperate, impoverished lives.

In short, I liked the film and I recommend it, but …  You knew there was a but, didn’t you?

Boyle takes on the real Mumbai and carefully shows us both sides of modern India: call centers full of cleancut technologically savvy young Indians and the grinding, killing poverty that still rules so much of the world.  This is shocking to American audiences, but Boyle softens the blow by making his main characters beautiful.  He has to, because no matter how far Mumbai may be from Hollywood, it is Hollywood that still controls the purse strings, and beauty sells.

I have nothing against watching beautiful people on theater screens, but I try to remember  it’s fiction.  Spending two hours with lovely, tall Dev Patel with his mega-watt smile is a pleasure, but it’s  clear he wasn’t born and raised in a Mumbai slum, eking out an existence against a backdrop of neglect, abuse, hunger, and desperation.

indian_beggarSo watch the film and enjoy it, but keep in the back of your mind that this is not the face of India’s poor.  There are likely some children who are purposely crippled and disfigured to improve their ability to beg, but vast numbers more are crippled and disfigured by malnutrition and lack of medical care.  And those children need help, because they’re not ever going to win at Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Go see the movie, but consider skipping the popcorn and donating that money to Oxfam or some other worthwhile agency.

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In honor of Harold Pinter’s passing, I picked up a DVD of The Servant from the library.  It’s representative of Pinter’s craft, full of meaningful silences and darkly funny moments.  Those silences can come across awkwardly in films, but The Servant has Dirk Bogarde on its side.  In his hands, those silences are punctuated by certain physical hesitations that reveal his thoughts, and that’s a beautiful thing: when an actor can sell you on the idea that he’s not acting, but living in the mind of the character.

The premise is a simple one–the hiring of a manservant–but one slightly outmoded even in 1963 Britain.  Young aristocrat, Tony, buys a townhouse and hires Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) as his butler cum valet cum cook.  Tony’s fiancee, Susan, seems startled at first by the notion that Tony has hired a servant, but she quickly becomes suspicious of him.  The moments when Susan and Barrett are alone in a room together are some of the most effective silences, full of uncertainty and hostility.  She wants him gone and does he feel the same way about her?

What begins as the formal relationship between master and servant is overturned by the introduction of Vera, allegedly Barrett’s sister, but later revealed to be his lover (and accomplice?)  There is evidently a machination at work, when Vera seduces Tony with Barrett’s approval, but it’s never clear what the intent is.  Do Barrett and Vera have a specific malevolent act in mind or are they simply eking out the most comfortable living they can by manipulating Tony’s emotions?

Regardless of intent, an emotional rupture separates Barrett and Tony, and an awkward (and perhaps staged) reunion and apology bring them back together.  They are less master and servant then, and more in the line of housemates.  Tony still pays the bills and Barrett still cooks and cleans, but there is a steady erosion of formality, until the two are playing ball games in the foyer.

From a storytelling viewpoint, the most powerful moment in the film comes at the very end, when prematurely matronly Susan (Miss Stewart) enters the lair of the now-chummy servant and master.  In the master’s bedroom, a party is going on.  Familiar music plays, while booze and girls of questionable morals lie scattered about the room.  Susan watches with her pinched-pained-disapproving look, while one of the party girls (Hazel Terry, more of a cougarish barfly by 1963) sprawls a drunken Tony across the bed.  Susan glares disconsolately as Barrett flirts with a pair of girls.  (It’s clear that Pinter and director Joseph Losey never want us to like Susan, with her vapid conversation and her middle-aged haircut.  )

For a moment, Susan plunges into truth.  She sees Barrett for what he is: stronger willed than his master.  He is in control.  He is the only one who can deliver Tony back to her.  She approaches Barrett and puts her hands on the lapels of his smoking jacket.  Then, in a moment that pleases and shocks, she kisses him.  The would-be lady of the house abases herself to the servant, but she isn’t as strong as she is brave.  When he returns the kiss forcibly, she tries to repel him.  He makes several attempts, laughing as he does, before she manages to remove herself from his embrace and flee the house.

If this movie were made now, in Hollywood, that would the point of it: debauchery and betrayal and a viper in the bosom of “good people.”  That’s how these stories play out in American movies, with obsessive roommates and malevolent nannies.

At the heart of The Servant, though, is an ugly truth that Hollywood isn’t ready to look at: servitude corrupts.  The existence of systems of class, whereby people are divided by wealth, the wealthy will always be corrupted by their power over the poor.

By the end of the film, the servant seems like a British bourgeois Svengali, leading his plummy-mouthed master into the belly of debauchery.  It’s played straight, with the servant dark and brooding, with an air of greasiness about him–not just his hair but his soul–while the master is tall, blond, and clean.

In a Disney world it’s easy to read that as the servant debauching the master, but in Harold Pinter’s world, rest assured it’s a more subtle dig than that.  It’s the service that debauches Tony.  The very act of being so idle and wealthy that one might want a servant to take care of the little quotidien household matters is the poison.  The servant, for all his oily manipulations, is only a tool of the class system that produced him.  If Barrett is the source of Tony’s moral downfall, who’s fault is that?  Who brought Barrett into his home?  Who made him the priest of household gods?  Wealthy, spoiled, socially desirable Tony.

If you mourned Harold Pinter’s passing last week, now’s a wonderful time to look back over his more readily accessible oeuvre.  There’s a nice four-volume edition of Pinter’s collected works available, each under $15.  Plus, Netflix has The Servant, The Handmaid’s Tale, Sleuth, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (screenplays all by Pinter.)  Or watch him in Mansfield Park, The Tailor of Panama, or a handful of other films where he has cameos.

Happy New Year!

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As many of you know, I don’t celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Yule.  I belong to the very small cult of Cinemites (not to be confused with the Sin-a-mite cult, who really know how to throw parties.)  Each year on December 25, I indulge or over-indulge in movies.  Typically, Cinemas is celebrated at a large multi-plex theater, but it can also be observed in the more humble form of the Ritual of the DVD’s.

Most years, hubby and I see 3 or 4 movies, but one year we saw 4 movies at the theater and another 3 at home.  We spent the next day with our eyes burning, and a bit hungover from all the popcorn, pop, and candy.  Since then, we’ve tried to celebrate in moderation.

This year was a disappointment for a number of reasons, beginning with a concept called “Fork and Screen.”  This is billed as an upscale movie-dining experience, where you watch the movie while eating an alleged meal, which I suspect is a slight step up from the microwaved monstrosities already passing for food in the regular part of the theater.  The gimmick behind this is that not only does one pay exorbitantly for the dubious food stuffs, one pays extra for the privilege of watching a movie while listening to people chew openly on hamburgers and pizzas.  (As opposed to the common theater experience of listening to people nibble furtively on popcorn and candy.)

At the theater we visited, they enforce the gimmick by offering certain films only in the “Fork and Screen.”  Namely, you couldn’t see Milk in a normal theater.  You could only see it in the Foodatorium.  Because we didn’t want to pay into the gimmick, we didn’t get to see it.

It threw our entire schedule for the day off.  We hadn’t planned to see The Spirit, although we both enjoyed its precursor, Sin City.  However, it was the only movie starting at the time we’d intended to see Milk, and we weren’t opposed to seeing it.

We saw about forty minutes of it.  We would have seen even less, but I think hubby and I were both waiting for the other to cave first.  Finally, we both leaned together and whispered, “I can’t take this.”  It was so bad that we got our money back.  I rarely walk out of movies and never have I asked for my money back, but this was special.  I like comic book movies.  As long as they’re visually interesting, I don’t even mind the ones with stilted dialog and glaring plot holes.  The Spirit had both, plus half-hearted absurdism from a phoning-it-in Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansen.  And it wasn’t anywhere near as visually interesting as the original comic strip.

Walking out of that movie put us in another bind.  We hadn’t intended to see The Day the Earth Stood Still, but again: that’s what was playing at the right time.  At least it was in IMAX, which renders even mediocre things minimally interesting.  Which is good, because DESS was fairly mediocre.  There’s not even any point in adding to the jokes about Keanu Reevers doing well at emotionless aliens.  Its only selling point was that Jennifer Connelly is immenently watchable, even when she’s starring in dreck.  (Oh and getting to see The Watchmen trailer on the IMAX screen was a bonus.)

We abandoned ship after that.  There were other movies we wanted to see, but Cinemas seemed tainted somehow.

This is how you know I’m a true Cinemite.  You’ll never hear me complain about the cost of movie tickets, or even refreshments.  I don’t care.  I’d pay double to see a good movie.  The problem with the movie industry is mediocrity.  It sinks billions of dollars into movies that aren’t worth watching.  Storylines that are tired, dialog that’s forced, characters with uncertain motivations and goals, ninth inning changes of heart that are unbelievable, and enough deus ex machina to choke a Trojan horse.

It all serves as a good reminder of what not to do when writing a novel.  A reminder, too, that even if you write the best novel you can, Hollywood may devour your story and shit out a movie you’d hate to pay $10 to see.

On the bright side, at least no one got hurt at the theater where I celebrated Cinemas.  Unlike in Philadelphia, where a man shot someone for talking during the movies.  You know who I feel sorry for?  The other people in the theater.  First, some jackass talking in the movie and then another jackass pulling out a gun and shooting the place up.  This is a sacred temple, people.  Have some respect.

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