Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Revolutionary Road

Ever since I saw Pocahontas at the Beatrice Holly Theater in the sixth grade, I have been a little on edge with movies that bounce from the present to the past and back again. I was super excited for Pocahontas at the time that I didn't think anything of the fact that John Smith and Pocahontas were having really deep conversations about the river and the wind BEFORE they met. I was still confused when all of the lights came on mid-movie and the movie theater manager came out and told us that we would be refunded our ticket money because the film strip was out of order... it was somehow cut wrong or something. I had to wait an entire week before I could see the movie in its correct order entirety. I've been on edge ever since, because, who knows! This could happen again at anytime without our knowledge!

I was a little worried and distracted by the thought that this had happened in Rev Road until the second quarter of the film, as it opens mid-story and then back tracks throughout the film explaining Frank and April's journey up until this point. Because of my unique Pocahontas experience, I was probably the only person in the audience to feel this way... because this was a PHENOMENAL film. Phenomenal. As my new friend Katy said at post-movie drinks at Pete's Tavern, run, don't walk to see this film.

Revolutionary Road tells the age old tale of discontentment. We know the story before the story begins... starry-eyed boy meets starry-eyed girl, boy and girl plan a life of adventures, accidentally (yet happily) have a child, put adventures on hold, then suddenly find themselves stuck and unhappy in a life of monotony. American Beauty, anyone? Titanic, perhaps? Nope, not at all. Mendes, DiCaprio, and Winslet leave these ghosts behind and retell this already told tale with an earth shattering freshness.

This film is different as it begins with the discontent. Rev Road doesn't waste anytime with anticipation. It opens with conflict, and reaches its peak of happiness and what we would normally deem conclusion at its mid-point. Everything we know has already happened at this point... its deeply satisfying. Mendes then shocks us with an unparalleled dramatic crumble that Kate and Leo absolutely nail. We were trembling.

Revolutionary Road's strength is matched by its supporting actors as well. The couple next door (Milly played by Kathryn Hahn, cousin to my friend Alex Hahn) work not only as the stereo-fifties cheese, but also hold a terror just beneath the surface that we can read softy. They hold normalcy without blankness.

The Dickens's character, Truth, is embodied by John, the crass neighbor recently released from an insane asylum. Truth shatters all false hope in both Frank and April, and releases the emptiness with a scream. The characters even voice this irony... isn't it interesting that the only person to understand us is certifiably insane? says Frank? I don't care, even if that makes us crazy too, answers April with a smile.

The film isn't anti-suburb, nor is it anti-children. This is where Mendes departs from American Beauty. It doesn't preach a ridiculousness, as anticipated. Instead, it unveils the terror of finding oneself at a place of inescapable discontent, no matter the situation. And it was terrifying. Most of us will relate to Winslet's character. Not that we are proud of it. At one lurching moment we see her as crazy, and the next as the villain. But it is April that we understand and will walk away knowing this with our tails between our legs.

Both DiCaprio and Winslet should be nominated for this film, although again, what do I know? I know that DiCaprio made us believe that a man with dreams of Paris and an understanding of suburban entrapment will suddenly wake up one day to a perfectly prepared breakfast made by his deeply unhappy wife and will actually believe that she is changing. That she is sincere in her wifely duties. I know that Winslet tapped into a crazy that we could feel, and not only judge. I know that this film twisted my stomach into a firmly settled knot and I could do nothing but gasp at its perfection. Run. Don't walk.

Happy New Year. :)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Marley and Me

I've become a crier. For sure. Never used to be, but these past few months have done me in. Marley got to me, as to be expected, but I did not expect to like it as much as I did. Holly asked this morning if I would blog about Marley and Me, knowing that I would say no. Its not my standard blog-type movie, nor the type of movie that I would choose to go to these days. But I'm at home in Beatrice and the whole Butler fam loaded up and went to the Holly Theater tonight and came home crying and laughing together. Its just a great movie.

We have a lab, Bella (or Belle, we call her both. And I call her Belly.) We chose her because of the white spot on her forehead and she loved us because that's what dogs do. I named her after the movie we were watching that night, La Vita e Bella, or Life is Beautiful. We told our Dad that we were naming her after Cabelas, his favorite store, so it worked out for all of us. There is nothing better than a lab puppy and that was a fantastic summer because of it. Before Belle we had Sport, a chocolate lab, who we had to put down when he was about 13 and was very sick. Needless to say, this movie touched the Butler's because we too have had a couple Marley's.

Marley and Me is predictable just as life is predictable and unpredictable because life is unpredictable. There isn't a huge plot nor a grand climax, and the film moves along smoothly and completely enjoyably. Its a movie that chronicles the life of a dog as told through his family. Jen and Owen were totally believable in this story, especially in their interactions with a dog who is forever in their face. If you have a dog, specifically a big dog, you understand the annoyance of the jumping, the chewing, the wet nose.

The movie is also about making plans and watching your life unfold anyway. Up until this point, I've pretty much navigated my own way in this world. I've done exactly what I've wanted to do and have purposefully avoided situations that may cause anything other than a happy ending. But like Jen says at the end, what you end up with, no matter the outcome, its better. A good lesson for those who prefer complete control.

It didn't preach family verses job, although that was of course a central conflict. The best friend role turned out happy as well, as a forty year old bachelor living in New York and writing for the Times. John and Sebastian took different paths and each ended up settled in a true happiness, one with the family, the other with the career. There isn't one way, the movie taught us. But there is your way, and that way is perfect too.

It was also a story about dogs. Obviously. It was about unconditional love because that is the great goodness of dogs. As told at the end of the film, they don't need expensive cars or nice clothes. They don't care if you are rich or poor or smart or dull. Even when you yell at them, or leave them alone with a babysitter for the weekend or don't always have time to play. They will always be there to welcome your love back and give it hurriedly in return. They love you unconditionally the moment you take them in. Because you feed them? Sure, haters. But I think its something more. Its an innate sense of unrequited loyalty that we could all benefit from observing.

I want a dog, I do. I love them. New York City has done that to me, maybe because without yards, we see dogs more. They are out and about with their owners and bounce around like Muppets on leashes. They breathe a little extra life and spunk into the city. Good for the soul, that's what I say. But I'm smart enough to know that I'm too selfish and too busy in my life to have one in the near future.

Marley and Me is simple, uncomplicated, and true. Well done with the Christmas release, and well done with the laughter and the tears. Go see this movie before the New Year brings new business and the chance passes you by. You'll like it too.

Sweet Land

Ali Selim screened Sweet Land in Northfield, Minnesota during my senior year of college. It is a film about Minnesota and was filmed in Minnesota and we were granted the golden tickets to see this film for the first time. It may not have been the most unbiased of audiences, as this film struck a cord in each of us for that very reason. It was close to us.

I watched it again this weekend in the car on our way home from Grandma Butler's home in Minden, Nebraska. Its a beautiful film. And despite my grandiose New York gal proclamations, it is the film closest to my history, the one about my people. Its a film about the prairie.

Inge comes to Minnesota as a mail order bride. Yikes. It was completely common in the days of the New West, despite its curious connotations. Men settled the west but missed companionship. So they sent away for a bride from the east coast, from Canada, and from Europe.

Inge came from Germany, an obvious slip, we soon learn. Germans weren't welcome due to the looming war, and Inge was assumed to be Norwegian, the preferred race. (Um Ya Ya.) She didn't speak English and Selim left out the subtitles, which I loved. The wedding scene is painful, as she rattles off excited German to a horrified congregation. Its her stubbornness that prevails
in the end, demanding her place in Olaf's house as promised.

The love story is nothing of the sort. Inge and Olaf aren't in love and don't try to be. But they fall into a sort of comfort and respect which is more than enough to sustain a lifetime of contentment. It was the story of so many. Which is kind of the point. This is one story, but everyone has something to tell. It wasn't epic nor particularly exciting. It was quiet and hard and good. They did love each other in the end, undoubtedly.

The best scene is the pie scene. Am I right? So good Emily and I pulled out my famous apple pie with gingersnap crumble from the backseat during our watching and ate it with our fingers, you can't blame us. Alex Kingston and Elizabeth Reaser make it look so very rightfully indulgent. That's some smart film making, Selim. Barely a word exchanged and so much understood.

As I drove through the flatness of Nebraska I again noticed the big skies and obvious beauty. If you ever have the chance to drive the highways toward Minden, do so. Its lovely. There isn't a billboard in sight, and the towns don't even have gas stations. Its hours of fields laced with a few streams and a few farmhouses. The trees give both away, as Nebraska is solid prairie. Only corn fields, I was often reminded of as a child with a small bladder and stubborn soda habit.

My parents lived in Michigan for a few years when they first were married and often talk about what it was like to come back to Nebraska after a five year absence. The skies, my dad always said. They are so much bigger here. Well, if Michigan brought out that shining difference, imagine what they look like coming home from New York City. The blue is breathtakingly large and overwhelmingly surrounding.

Sweet Land
took advantage of the skies (though in Minnesota, not Nebraska, I know) with lovingly framed farmhouses, fields, skies, and farmers. The film stills could easily be turned into Rothko's or Mondrian's. Its that kind of separation, that kind of distinction. Parallel lines and solid colors. Few have noticed this beauty, and I'm so glad that Selim is one of them.

Sweet Land
is a quiet film that didn't ask for glory or recognition. In fact, I'm unsure of how big its release was and how well known it has become. It took Selim fourteen years to make and at the time of the screening he wasn't sure that it would even end up in theaters. He made it because he wanted to tell this story, not even his own. In my circle, Sweet Land is spoken of with true appreciation and absolute heart. And I know that Willa Cather would be beaming.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Reasons To Love New York (especially right now.)

New York Magazine dedicates their last issue each year to reasons why we love New York. And I, obviously, love it. It is Christmastime in New York City and before I head home to the Heartland for the holidays, I thought I'd reflect a little and post my own list. Because, yes, Virginia, I do love this city.

1) It finally snowed.
Just as we were all getting a little Grinchy at the Art in America offices on Broadway (myself included), quarter-sized snowflakes started slowly dropping from the sky. If you live here, you remember them. I kept hearing the word 'snowglobe' said around Soho, no joke. Because it absolutely looked like one. A cheesy Christmastime New York snowglobe. And we ate it up.

2. Rockefeller Center still uses colorful Christmas lights.
I don't know about you, but I get really sick of all-white lights. They look nice in certain situations, like in Aspen year round, but at Christmastime I wanna see some big bright C9 bulbs like my dad always used. Rock center, Christmas central, does not disappoint.

3. The Anthropologie Christmas Windows
Better than Macy's and better than Bloomingdales and better than Bergdorf's. The three main themes this year: tinsel, big C9 lights, and paperchains. You can see why I was struck... It looked like my apartment.

4. This snowman on Gates Avenue
And that a dude was standing on top of his car kicking off the snow on the next car over. New Yorkers don't really know how to handle snow that well. They kind of panic, lets just be honest.

5. The "The Economy Sucks but We Don't" sales
Alison and I Christmas shopped all day on Saturday and encountered the best sales we've ever seen. Bloomberg got on the news to encourage Christmas shopping and to remind us that we are all in this together and that businesses really do need us this year. The mood was nothing but merry on 5th Ave, and the employees so very helpful. The later was definitely a Christmas miracle.

6. The homeless subway entertainers have switched to Christmas Carols.
And they probably get more money that way, so its a good thing all around! (I'm dying for an entire train car to join in one of these days, but this is still New York, after all. And even though it is Christmastime, we are usually still pissed off on the train. Its tradition.)

7. Because Robert Moses would have a coronary if he were to see our streets now.
(Yeah, I stole this from the NY Mag list but it is deserving.) New York is reverting back to a pedestrian city. Strips of street have been painted tan, flanked with planters and benches. Bikers, walkers, and observers have taken over traffic and everyone seems to be okay with it. If there is one reason I love New York right now, this is it... and Jane Jacobs would be oh-so-proud.

8. Because New Yorkers still understand the concept of a lazy Sunday.
I had this discussion with friends today... only in New York will people drop all of their plans to sit in a cozy apartment or bar with a fireplace and a glass of wine for the entire day without a second thought. In the summer, Sundays are spent doing as much as we can, hopping from one Brooklyn activity to the next. But in the wintertime, we sit around and talk all day and never go outside because its just too cold. That's exactly how I spent my day today. An older coworker of mine once hinted at this and told me to enjoy it while I am single and young... 'there is simply nothing more decedent than drinking all day on a winter afternoon,' she said. I completely agree.

9. Because people actually stop working between Christmas and New Years.
Well... maybe just in the art world.

10. Because when you are single and 25 and working a 9-5 job in New York City, you can do whatever the hell you want from 5pm to 9am.
I totally stole this from last year's list, but I've been thinking about it for the entire year. The point is that there is so much to do in New York--anytime, all of the time-- but especially at Christmas. And people actually get out there are do it! That's the major difference between New York and middle America... people share in community activities and aren't dead set on being at home. Perhaps small apartments might have something to do with it, but whatever the reason, New Yorkers absolutely take advantage of all that the city has to offer. People get excited, parties are thrown, everything is holiday themed. I haven't been home after work in months. I find myself with plans every single night, usually multiple engagements to choose between. And while my laundry has suffered, my spirit is all the better for it.

Happy Christmas, everyone :)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Queen

I watched this movie for the second time today and was again struck with how very convincing it is. It succeeded where "W" didn't at portraying living characters in the very recent present. Many attempts at this (W for sure) end up looking and acting like a drag show. Its uncomfortable to watch if you aren't supposed to be laughing and if it isn't supposed to be funny. The Queen somehow succeeds in creating a world so very present yet removed from the reality of the royal family living today. It works as a film, not just as documentation.

Helen Mirren might have something to do with this. She is spectacular in the role. Right down to the walk. The Academy rewarded her for this and rightly so (I am saying this all in a British accent, just so that's clear). We are transfixed by her and immediately get it. We get why there was conflict and we get why she acted the way she did upon Diana's funeral. We aren't on her side necessarily, but we immediately enter an understanding of the misunderstanding.

I am also, of course, attracted to this film for its indulgence. It is like reading tabloid, and it gives us what we ask for. You like it for that reason too, and you know it. We are obsessed with this family, even after tabloids killed the Princess. We can't help it and neither could they. Its ridiculous, actually, how much press this funeral created. And that, we learn, is the queen's point... stop with the obsession! It's exactly what killed her! Respect privacy (priv-a-see, not pry-va-see), grieve in solitude, maintain decorum. Why couldn't they see that? Blair and his merry men.

The interesting thing about this view is that she never said this outright, not even privately. She didn't want a soapbox, and that, too, is her point. Get a grip, England, Mirrem conveyed so clearly with her furrowed brow and slight eye roll. Stop with your cameras and bleeding hearts. Its a private matter. She wasn't heartless, not at all. She just had a completely different understanding of the British people. (See how convincing it was?! I find myself wanting to fight for Elizabeth's voice.)

I also loved how this film showcased the Queen's aptitude for hunting. So funny, when you think about it. Like, if you were royalty, how would you spend your time? These people hunt stag and drive army vehicles and chase around with dogs. They pack their lunch and bring canteens of tea and leftover lamb stew. Its simply fantastic. This is the indulgence I mentioned before of being granted entrance into these people's lives. It is tabloid and it is interesting. We can't help it.

I read somewhere that when a member of the real Queen's entourage (for lack of better term) was asked how Elizabeth would react to the film if she ever chose to see it, the answer was easy and predictable. She would sigh, nod in agreement, and ask for her evening gin.

The Thomas Crown Affair

I miss fake eyelashes. Fake eyelashes and gogo boots and white tights with babydoll dresses. I love the sixties. I didn't grow up in the sixties but my mother did. And Saturday nights when we had babysitters she often rented her favorite childhood movies for us to fall in love with. (And she got us TV dinners to eat in the living room which was really really cool.) Therefore, my sisters and I fell in love with this era and grew up with these influences and completely missed the Molly Ringwald years of our peers. That Darn Cat, Beach Party, Beach Blanket Bingo, Babes in Toyland, Gidget, The Parent Trap, Trouble with Angels, Funny Face, Bye-bye Birdie, Breakfast at Tiffany's... things like that.

However, I hadn't seen the original Thomas Crown Affair until this morning, when I watched it in bed with leftover Thai food... yay for lazy Saturday mornings in Brooklyn. This is the ultimate sixties crime film. And the sixties-ness of it reminded me of the days in which I would become completely transfixed in a movie and barely blink in risk of missing the costume jewelry and the perfect black coal. This is what the Ocean movies aim to be, I realized as the screen split into squares and the lighting turned pink during the love scene. So sixties, so chic.

I also love the new Thomas Crown, the one with Renee Russo and Pierce Brosnon. Jennifer gave it to me for my birthday and I've watched it five times since October. Its about art theft (is there anything sexier!?) and stars a saucy, confident, tall redhead with a great haircut... Russo is the original redheaded sex kitten and we all thank her for it. She must be fifty in this film, which is even more awesome, and absolutely steals the screen from Mr. Brosnan. Three cheers for Russo.

So with such high hopes, I was a bit disappointed that the original film centered around a bank robbery, not art thievery. I kept waiting for Steve McQueen to run up the stairs of the Met in his super sleek man shoes, or for Faye Dunaway to snap out a monocle over her coal-drenched lashes. Bummer. But once I got past the bank thing, I was sucked into this film.

What separates Thomas Crown from other sixties crime films is the love story. I keep using the word sexy, but there is no other way to describe the gorgeous insurance detective girl openly going after the thief. (This is a black and white ball... Thats okay, I wasn't invited anyway.) He knows she is trying to convict him and she knows he just committed the perfect crime, yet they willingly enter a super sexy chess-game-turn-love-affair.

The best part is that there aren't secrets. It absolutely leaves the predictability of 'he is going to find out she's with the bad guys and then they will have a falling out, but then they will realize that their love is bigger than the politics so they will get back together in the end' line of direction. Its a different formula, a better one. They are both playing with fire, the world is watching and they don't mean to... but they fall in love. It remains a game, with guards up and daggers out, until suddenly its not. But they of course both become vulnerable (her first, alas) and we get our happy ending.

Other fantastic parts of the Crown Affair films include the SEXIEST planes in the world. I, reader, am not one for planes or cars or trains or anything like that, but these airplanes are HOT. Sleek, white, soft, fast. Amazing. And they are filmed as an interlude with nothing but a strong score playing behind. I wish that films today did that more... breathing room. They capture the world of a very wealthy thief and draw us closer to wanting it. They are greed and we want to touch it and be in his world too.

This film, like the Ocean films, also turns our heads on good vs. evil. The point is conviction but when Dunaway/Russo suddenly realized that turning in McQueen/Brosnan means never being with him, we suddenly drop our sound judgments and root for the bad guy, we root for (dare I say it).... love.

'You really think there's "happy ever after" for people like us?' asks Catherine... the us being the wealthy, the smart, the cunning, powerful, conniving, and independent. And he just smiles and looks out onto his island and the blue sky above.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Muppet Christmas Carol

The Marley's were dead to begin with.

Alright, so after we thought about Doubt for a bit, how about a friendlier post? I have some time to kill between work and dinner, so lets talk about the Muppets. A Muppet Christmas Carol to be exact.

This is the best Muppet movie, hands down. I love it. We all know I have a soft spot for Dickens but you may not have known my soft spot for Beecker and Professor Honeydew. Mmmm I smile just thinking about that little guy.

I watched this movie twice yesterday (with Elf in between) with a room full of girls, cookies, icing, glitter, paste, twinkle lights, C9 lights (the best kind), and a two-and-a-half year old child. In a word, merriment.

The best part of Muppet movies is that there isn't any recognized difference between human and Muppet. No one is like, 'why is Fozziwig a Muppet and his daughter a gorgeous human girl?' No one asks how Miss Piggy and Kermet (Bob and Mrs. Cratchit!) produced a frog child (Tiny Tim!) and not a hybrid. We don't question that some horses are horses and some horses are Muppet. This teaches us all a great big lesson on acceptance and diversity. Its ant-racist and pro animal-rights. Muppet and human unite! (Actually, the one example that I can think of when this becomes awkward is in The Muppets Take Manhattan when Kermet has a bit of a love story with a human. That almost crosses the line.)

Wicked does a fantastic job of this as well, but it, on the other hand, actually addresses the fact that a goat is teaching history and a girl has green skin. But that's why Wicked is great, and a different post entirely.

The Muppet Christmas Carol has the best score of any Muppet film as well, and is right up there in the running for the best Christmas movie score all together. We ADORE the Ghost of Christmas Present and are absolutely convinced of Scrooge's (Michael Cain! How fantastic that he did this movie!) happy transformation amongst this jolly bearded Bacchus.

The Ghost of Christmas Past was a definite leap in Muppet world and I love, love, loved it. I remember being absolutely transfixed by this semi-animated-floating creature as a child in the way that only children can be scared and drawn at the same time. She is incredibly creepy and also hauntingly beautiful. She is the Past and plays it well.

There is no better Tiny Tim than little Kermie, and I've seen many, many versions. When I read the book, I do picture Kermie with his little crutch and tiny frog legs. He melts our hearts and recognises charity. He is charity embodied, as Dickens creates so effortlessly.

Rizzo and Gonzo narrate the tale as the most endearing of comic sideshows. Gonzo leans into his words and animates the epic tale of suspense and greed and love and hope. Its a big job, playing Charles, and he nails it. Rizzo as sidekick is perfect because he respects Gonzo and acts as his friend. He corrects him but never embarrasses. He questions but doesn't argue. When Gonzo dumps him in ice to put out his tail that is on fire (funny) he thanks him. He's the town fool and we embrace him as any English village would.

Okay, I could go on and on about why this movie is good and important, but time to walk to 12th street for dinner. I hope I run into some wreath-toting mice and talking grapes on my way. Here's to hope. :)

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Okay, so I didn't love Doubt. And I really wanted to. And I am super curious if it will get nominated, because, really, I almost fell asleep. Which i NEVER do in movies. Never ever. But I'm not a critic nor am I in the film world in any way, so what do I know.

HOWEVER... there was some merit in this film... and three of the best actors on this side of the rainbow. (Which is why I was so confused about the flatness of the final product.) According to my theater friend Colleen, the original screenplay introduced 4 characters total, and I'm sure the set was minimal. I am guessing that they were the three main characters-- two nuns and a priest-- plus the mother. No children involved. Interesting.

That being said, some of the best scenes involved a full cast and movie magic. The dining scenes that were shot between the 'girls' and the 'boys' showcasing the staunch differences in gender and decorum, for example, were movie-only. The cold lighting was pitch perfect and the green walls of Sister Aloysius Beauvier's office divine. The cinematography was beautiful and the movement just so. Streep couldn't be more ideal for the role, and Hoffman and Adams clearly held their own. So why so flat?

After much contemplation and disgust I realized that my main problem with the film wasn't the script. It wasn't the actors, it wasn't the filming or the movie translation. The story bothered me. This world bothered me. The world within the brick and mortar walls of the Catholic church. I couldn't stand the restraint.

The story had no where to go other than neutral because the church had no where to go. There wasn't a court case or a public vote or a revolution. I wanted Milk, I wanted The Reader. Revolution and heart pounding real-life suspense. Instead I received a few hidden arguments and quiet meetings. Bor-ing. There wasn't a public upset, and barely a private one.

This priest resigned in a hush and took another position at another parish and all he got in revenge was a little pouting. He walked away with his tail between his legs and his heart in need of change. There wasn't a fall out of any measurable proportion. Like my friend Sarah (the religion major, mind you) asked in complete sincerity... what was the point? Doubt is as vital as certainty? As condemning as trial? Okay... what else?

And remember the gorgeous score accompanying the trailer? The one that drew us in with utter anticipation? They left that out. Not even one cello. Disappointing for sure.

But perhaps that was the point... maybe the joke was on me. It was a quiet world, a boring confine. There wasn't any bouncing suspense with a score to match. It was about doubt, not surety. Tradition, not absolution. Maybe we were supposed to feel oppressed and suffocated just as a woman in the system would have felt. Maybe. But I still wanted violins.

So. Fall in love with the people and the ideas. Fall in love with the strong dialogue and perfect acting. Just be prepared for a long haul. Take it with a grain of catholic salt. AND, I just really want Hathaway or Winslet to score that statue. Meryl Streep has plenty. Plus, she did Mamma Mia this year and should be severely punished.

***DISCLAIMER*** (As requested by HoHo and Emalicious.) Okay. I actually loved Mamma Mia. And I listen to the soundtrack on my ipod pretty much every day. My favorite song is "Name of the Game" and the color of my bedroom was inspired by the Greek goodness of the cinematography. I love ABBA and I love musicals. Always have. What I meant by my comment above was that it is NOT Meryl's most Oscar-worthy performance and I really just want Anne Hathaway to win. Or Kate Winslet. But yeah... I loved Mamma Mia and will probably purchase the DVD.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Reader

The Reader debuted at the Paris Theater tonight. Kate Winslet is incredible in this film. Just stunning. She plays a Nazi, something that makes us immediately start to squirm. How uncomfortable! The leading lady plays a Nazi!? Well, she, as we learn, has a story too.

We are welcomed into this difficult and deeply cutting film with a love story. A love affair. Which-- it should be noted-- a love affair very different for the character and for the audience than a love story. We expect a love story, no matter the film... but we devour affairs.

Furthermore, without this illicit act, our attention would have been much further removed, much more sedated. We wouldn't have held the captivation and emotional linkage. Without a passionate affair, this would be a War Film. The affair was there for a reason, and it wasn't just the story line. It is a way of grabbing our interest in a much different tone than something like La Vita e Bella. Its heat, not heart right from the get-go. And because of the affair and the immediate direction, we remain a bit confused as to whose side we are on. Whose valor to give our hearts. I don't know about you, but I gave mine to Hanna.

It also should be stated that Kate Winselt's character, Hanna Schmitz, isn't the textbook definition of Nazi. She works for the Nazi party, but has absolutely no political agenda or motive behind her work. She is a guard, she is doing a job. If I sound immoral in defending her, well, that is exactly what the film is about... morality. Morality, blame, forgiveness. What is right, what is wrong, and how should we decide. Its law verses reality, morality verses understanding. Its messy because it was messy.

Winselt stole the show with a shockingly non-emotional role. Hanna Schmitz was the most straight forward, unyielding character I've seen in a long time. I never imagined Winselt such an ungraceful role. But she absolutely convinced us. Her actions were so nondescript and so small, yet she held a presence of massive proportions.

We wept for her fragility, and wanted to shake her into some sort of understanding. Did she really not get it?! Did she not know what she was doing?! It seemed that way, but the audience was left with some guessing, as we acted as jury, not prosecutor.

The film is called The Reader, and it is the reading that gives Hanna our faith and the benefit of our doubt. She loved being read to, and her affair turned very quickly from one based on sex to one based on literature. Our hearts broke for the beauty of it all.

She does learn to read at the end, and at this part only did my tears overflow. What did you learn here, asks Michael upon her release from twenty years in prison. I learned to read she answers sternly. Ah, we get it too. Just as Hanna circles every 'the' on the page of her book and realizes for the first time understands that letters make sounds and sounds make words and works make sentences and sentences make stories... we understand her emotional absence upon serving a life term for the charge of 300 murders. What I feel and what I learn doesn't matter she says. The dead are still dead. Ah... we get it. And we ache for her.

Lena Olin enters as the representative Jew in this film. She plays both mother and daughter (did anyone else catch that, or is my Alias obsession finally coming in handy?) From her we learn not forgiveness (Can it be taught in this situation? Should it be?) but understanding. She doesn't reach down her right hand as we suddenly want her to do. She feels nothing but hate and anger toward Hanna. And yes, we have to remind ourselves, we hate her too. Because sometimes, even in the end, understanding has to be enough.

Kirsha Kaechele

Kirsha Kaechele recently made me doubt any coolness I ever thought I possessed. She was featured in the November issue of Interview, Art in America's sister publication. I read the article a few months ago and haven't been able to get it out of my head. I've thought about it a lot and can honestly say Kaechele's insights have altered a bit of my stunted view on non-profit art. It's stunning, and an absolute validation of why art is good.

Kaechele owns runs KKProjects, a not for profit art org in New Orleans. Her motive and drive is so very honorable and completely genuine. Its a rare find in the art world, even in non-profits. In her own words, its transcendent. Transcendent of morality and transcendent of political position.

Kaechele is driven by art as a pure concept. This isn't a new idea or motivation, most non profits can stake the claim. But the difference between Kaechele and the rest of the art world is that she succeeds. Not in a measureable way, as my bet is that KKProjects is on the brink of absolute sinking financial failure. She instead succeeds in the preservation of idea. She's also slightly crazy. Which helps.

The article reads like an adventure story... she is the Pippi Longstocking of contemporary America. Its escapist to even imagine her life and her day to day living. Someone NEEDS to make a documentary on this girl and her project... you heard it here first. So on this rainy and gloomy December day... enter Kirsha's world and become inspired. Here ya go.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

It's a Wonderful Life

Instead of writing about the best movie ever made myself, I am handing my blog over to the late great James Stewart himself. I watched It's a Wonderful Life last night for the gazillionth time, tearing up as always at the final scene. (A toast to my big brother George... the richest man in town.) Mr. Gower, Bailey's Building and Loan, Zuzu's petals, Clarence's wings... such a lovely lovely film and oddly dark, I realized this time around while watching it in my dark apartment all alone. It is Capra, after all.

Emily sent me this article this morning... Jimmy Stewart's own words from 1977. Isn't he fantastic?! Enjoy.

A friend told me recently that seeing a movie I made in 1946 is a holiday tradition in his family, "like putting up the Christmas tree". That movie is It's a Wonderful Life, and out of all the 80 films I've made, it's my favorite. But it has an odd history.

When the war was over in 1945, I came back home to California from three years' service in the Air Force. I had been away from the film business, my MGM contract had run out, and frankly, not knowing how to get started again. I was just a little bit scared. Hank Fonda was in the same boat, and we sort of wandered around together, talking, flying kites and stuff. But nothing much was happening.

Then one day Frank Capra phoned me. The great director had also been away in service, making the Why We Fight documentary series for the military, and he admitted to being a little frightened too. But he had a movie in mind. We met in his office to talk about it.

He said the idea came from a Christmas story written by Phillip Van Doren Stern. Stern couldn't sell the story anywhere, but he finally had 200 twenty-four page pamphlets printed up at his own expense, and he sent them to his friends as a greeting card.

"Now, listen," Frank began hesitantly. He seemed a little embarrassed about what he was going to say. "The story starts in heaven, and it's sort of the Lord telling somebody to go down to earth because there's a fellow who is in trouble, and this heavenly being goes to a small town, and..." Frank swallowed and took a deep breath. "Well, what it boils down to is, this fellow who thnks he's a failure in life jumps off a bridge. The Lord sends down an angel named Clarence, who hasen't earned his wings yet, and Clarence jumps into the water to save the guy. But the angel can't swim, so the guy has to save him, and then..."

Frank stopped and wiped his brow. "This doesn't tell very well, does it?"
I jumped up. "Frank, if you want to do a picture about a guy who jumps off a bridge and an angel named Clarence who hasn't won his wings yet coming down to save him, well, I'm your man!"

Production of It's a Wonderful Life started April 15, 1946, and from the beginning there was a certain something special about the film. Even the set was special. Two months had been spent creating the town of Bedford Falls, New York. For the winter scenes, the special effects department invented a new kind of realistic snow instead of using the traditional white cornflakes. As one of largest American movie sets ever made until then, Bedford Falls had 75 stores and buildings on four acres with a three block main street lined with 20 full grown oak trees.

As I walked down that shady street the morning we started work, it reminded me of my hometown, Indiana, Pennsylvania. I almost expected to hear the bells of the Presbyterian church, where Mother played the organ and Dad sang in the choir. I chuckled, remembering how the fire siren would go off, and Dad, a volunteer fireman, would slip out of the choir loft. If it was a false alarm, Dad would sneak back and sort of give a nod to everyone to assure them that none of their houses was in danger.

It wasn't the elaborate movie set, however, that made It's a Wonderful Life so different; much of it was the story. The character I played was George Bailey, an ordinary kind of fella who thinks he's never accomplished anything in life. His dreams of becoming a famous architect, of traveling the world and living adverturously, have not been fulfilled. Instead, he feels trapped in a humdrum job in a small town. And when faced with a crisis in which he feels he has failed everyone, he breaks under the strain and flees to the bridge.

That's when this guardian angel, Clarence, comes down on Christmas Eve to show him what his community would be like without him. The angel takes him back through his life to show how our ordinary everyday efforts are really big achievements.

Clarence reveals how George Bailey's loyalty to the job at the building and loan office has saved families and houmes, how his little kindnesses have changed the lives of others, and how the ripples of his love will spread through the world, helping make it a better place.
Good as the script was, there was still something else about the movie that made it different. It's hard to explain. I, for one, had things happen to me during the filming that never happened in any other picture I've made.

In one scene, for example, George Bailey is faced with unjust criminal charges and, not knowing where to turn, ends up in a little roadside restaurant. He is unaware that most of the people in town are arduously praying for him. In this scene, at the lowest point in George Bailey's life, Frank Capra was shooting a long shot of me slumped in despair. In agony I raise my eyes and following the script, plead, "God...God...dear Father in heaven, I'm not a praying man, but if You're up there and You can hear me, show me the way, I'm at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God..."

As I said those words, I felt the loneliness and hopelessness of people who had nowhere to turn, and my eyes filled with tears. I broke down sobbing. This was not planned at all, but the power of that prayer, the realization that our Father in heaven is there to help the hopeless had reduced me to tears.

Frank, who loved spontaneity in his films, was ecstatic. He wanted a close-up of me saying that prayer but was sensitive enough to know that my breaking down was real and that repeating it in another take was unlikely. But Frank got his close-up anyway.
The following week he worked long hours in the film labratory, again and again enlarging the frames of the scene so that eventually it would appear as a closeup on screen. I believe nothing like this had ever been done before. It involved thousands of individual enlargements with extra time and money. But he felt is was worth it.

There was a growing excitement as we strove day and night through the early summer of 1946. We threw everything we had into our work. Finally, after three months, shooting some 68 miles of 35-millimeter film, we complete filming and had a wrap up party for everyone. It was an outdoor picnic with three-legged races and burlap-bag sprints, just like the picnics back home in Pennsylvania.

At the outing, Frank talked enthusuiastically about the picture. He felt that the film as well as the actors would be up for Academy Awards. Both of us wanted it to win, not only because we believed in its message, but also for the reassurance we needed in this time of starting over. But life doesn't always work out the way we want it to. The movie came out in December 1946, and from the beginning we could tell it was not going to be the success we'd hoped for. The critics had mixed reactions. Some liked it ("a humble drama of essential truth"), others felt it "too sentimental...a figment of simple Pollyanna platitudes."

As more reviews came out, our hopes sank lower and lower. During early February 1947, eight other current films, including Sinbad the Sailor and Betty Grables's The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, out-ranked it in box-office income. The postwar public seemed to prefer lighthearted fare. At the end of 1947 It's a Wonderful Life ranked 27th in earnings among the other releases that season.

And although it earned several Oscar nominations, despite our high hopes it won nothing. "Best picture for 1946" went to The Best Years of Our Lives. By the end of 1947 the film was quietly put on the shelf.

But a curious thing happened. The movie simply refused to stay on the shelf. Those who loved it loved it a lot, and they must have told others. They wouldn't let it die any more than the angel Clarence would let George Bailey die. When it began to be shown on televison, a whole new audience fell in love with it.

Today I've heard the filmed called "an American cultural phenomenon". Well, maybe so, but it seems to me there is nothing phenomenal about the movie itself. It's simply about an ordinary man who discovers that living each ordinary day honorably, with faith in God and selfless concern for others, can make for a truly wonderful life."