Category Archives: movies

Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence – Movie (A Little Late)

I saw Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence before the Oscars but I didn’t even attempt to write about it because so many other people did. The critics loved this movie and I cannot pretend to compete with what they know about films.

Initially I had very mixed feelings about the movie. It was beautifully put together, perhaps one of the best films I have seen lately in terms of production values. The acting was also top notch. But, at the time, the story struck me as self-indulgent, an aging actor missing his fame and trying to mount a comeback on the boards doing a play based on a short story by his favorite author, Ray Carver.

Often, when moviegoers see back stage we are shown scenes at a production such as a big cast musical with lots of chaos and cuing action, or we are seeing an investigation following a murder that was committed either off or on the stage. But here we have the Birdman, well, the ex-Birdman, who is used to swooping through space and being the center of attention or in other words to being heroic, yet now, in this little theater for this quiet little play he reminds us more of Willy Loman and it’s pissing him off. He wavers among his many real life roles, sometimes a stage manager, an actor, a boyfriend, an ex-husband, a father, someone who is almost broke and then that heroic winged avenger he once was. He wants to be that winged avenger again, but he is too old, he looks ludicrous in the role. So what? Why should we feel bad for him? He had a wonderful life. Not our fault if he mismanaged his money.

Then there is that soundtrack, all percussion, which I liked at times, but mostly found annoying. It created a tension which made everything seem dire and foolish at the same time. Sometimes it was pure jazz sophistication and sometimes it was vaudeville with all its slapstick and pratfalls.

I mentioned to my sister after the movie that aging actors seemed to be the topic of the moment because we had just finished reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel in which Arthur, another aging actor plays such a key role, even though he dies early in the book. My sister pretends she is not at all literary but she sometimes gets things quicker than I do. She said that this topic is popping up so often because the baby boomers are old – ouch! She is not a boomer, I am almost a boomer. I do believe, though, that she summed up the universal appeal of this movie and figured out the meaning of the ending all in one easy, if slightly snippy, little sentence.

The Birdman is not just the actor known as the Birdman, he is all us obsolete boomers. Everyone is ready for us to leave the stage but we still want to be relevant, even if we may make ourselves appear foolish to others. Perhaps the daughter is smiling at the end of the film because Dad gets to leave the world as the Birdman, and he has left her the center stage position that he cannot recover. (You can see the cast list at imdb.com)

By Nancy Brisson

Beasts of the Southern Wild – Movie/Philosophy

These were my thoughts after watching the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild on pay-per-view, and I must say that the movie did help me tie together two paradoxical views of the future of humans on planet earth. Good movies make you think.

We are living at a fulcrum point in civilization with two competing visions for the future of our planet. One is an exciting view that sees us entering an age where we find that futuristic techno-future we have imagined since we watched the Jetsons, or even earlier. Our parents had Buck Rogers. Didn’t he go to space? If we make it through all the dreadful dangers that threaten to engulf existence as we know it will we arrive at a golden age of computers, connectedness, greenness, robotics, nanotechnology (whatever that is) and tolerance that will transform our lives?

The other possibility is equally with us. We are seeing more apocalyptic literature (including movies) than we have ever seen before. We deal with our more extreme weather every day. I will never forget the day I walked down the stairs from my second floor office and saw, before my very eyes, the neat patchwork of fields around a Japanese village turned to chaos and mud by a killer tsunami because it was happening in real time right on the TV in my kitchen. We have had an endless parade of super tornadoes and damaging hurricanes. We suspect that the extreme weather in Australia has something to do with the melting of the ice in Antarctica. We are warned to expect a world epidemic at any time that could wipe out millions or an attack by terrorists with chemical weapons or traditional weapons or by injecting poisons into our water supplies. Unrest surrounds us all as people strive for freedom and control over their own lives, and opportunities. Will we be able to end our dependencies on the fossil fuels that most of us believe are destroying our planet and that could make either of these futures impossible?

Have you watched Beasts of the Southern Wild? Yes that tiny actress (Quvenzhane Wallis) was wonderful and, no, I still don’t know whether I think she is too young to win an Oscar. However this movie did lead me to all these philosophical considerations about our future. The people in this film were a bunch of free people living a simple life pretty much exactly as they wished on an island called the Bathtub off the coast of Louisiana. They seem primitive to us and it is difficult for us to be happy with the way this drunken and dying dad treats his daughter. However, I can see that he is teaching her to treasure the independent life they live and that he wants to make her strong. She lost her mom and she is losing her father. He has to teach her to take care of herself and he can’t make her all mushy and soft. He calls her Hushpuppy and often treats her like a boy or a nuisance. The residents of the Bathtub know that they live at the mercy of the weather. A big enough storm could wipe out the island completely. Their “teacher” in their “school” tells them about the ice that is melting in Antarctica and we see footage of huge sections of ice calving off the glaciers. We feel the stress Hushpuppy is under as she strives to please her father and learn the lessons he teaches her, the lessons that are necessary because he will not be with her. She knows he is sick and, although she doesn’t think he is dying, she does think he will abandon her. We see the aurochs, miraculously returned to life, perhaps released by the melting ice, chasing her, thundering over the ground hot on her trail. When they finally catch up with her we know that it is the moment when she must decide to grow up and decide what kind of grownup she will be. The best movies are the movies that send us off on productive tangents as we try to constantly renegotiate what kind of grownups we will be.

So even as we swing back and forth between our fearful visions and our hopeful ones we suspect that reality will lie somewhere between the two. Maybe it only seems as if we are looking at the end of life as we know it because that is always the way humans face uncertainty. And we do seem to be at the center of some really big uncertainties. One of the biggest is whether our lives in the future will be more comfortable or considerably less comfortable than they are at present. Will we accept temporary discomfort to make the energy changes that are necessary to providing a future that does not involve returning to the past?

Good movie.

 

Nora Ephron: Our Jane Austen and Our Sister

Nora Ephron just left us at the age of 71. She is a famous person who lived a real life, a quiet life, with family and friends and work and all of the choices that her financial success gave her. In a way she could have been our sister. She was a child of World War II, born in New York City just before the attack on Pearl Harbor (May 19, 1941).

Although Nora seems down-to-earth, she did not grow up like the rest of us. She grew up in Beverly Hills, California with two screenwriter parents, Henry and Phoebe Ephron, who wrote scripts for movies I watched in theaters when I was a tween. Nora has three sisters; Delia and Amy, both screenwriters; and Hallie, a journalist. She had a life like the ones we read about in our Hollywood magazines, although her parents apparently liked their cocktails a bit too much and this sometimes made life less than idyllic.
She was married three times so, apparently, she lived through emotional ups and downs like all of us do. She had two boys by her second husband, who was also famous. He was Carl Bernstein, Watergate journalist. Her boys are Jacob, 21 and Max, 20. Her first husband was Dan Greenburg and her current husband is Nicholas Pileggi, who is also famous because he wrote Wiseguys which later became Goodfellas.
Nora Ephron is perhaps our 21st century Jane Austen. Jane had only one sister, Cassandra, and of course did not grow up in any British equivalent of Beverly Hills because there wasn’t one. But both wrote what may seem at first glance to be fluffy romances, but which, as we live with these creations, become windows on the culture of an age.
Jane Austen wrote books, which perhaps gave her more scope for her talent with language. She could be detailed and witty and she gives us great insight into the lives of “well-born” women in England at the time. She writes what she knows and she makes no attempt to give us a comprehensive glimpse of all women in Britain, because she was never in a position to know anything about women outside her social class. She lived a live that was protected by convention and by family and could have been frustratingly lacking in scope, but she gave us her wonderful books.
Well Nora, also lived a life that was circumscribed by her upbringing. She grew up in a family of writers. How many of us do that? One sister described dinners at the family house as unfolding like a session at the Algonquin Round Table of Dorothy Parker fame. At my family table there was lots of laughter, some “fork” attacks, but very little that would pass as wit. She went to Wellsley College. She had a early, very desireable and successful career in journalism in New York City.  She wrote about us, about men and women in the second half of the 20th century. She wrote about romance and she wrote about our culture. We are as at home in her creations as Jane Austen’s readers probably were in hers.
Yes, her movies are slick and beautiful and seemed a bit “fluffy” the first time we saw them, but they touch us somewhere we don’t need to examine with our intellect. They may be guilty pleasures, but they hold up. We can watch them over and over again, especially, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Three other successful films are Silkwood, Julie and Julia, and When Harry Met Sally. Most of her films are probably chick flicks, but I’m betting that Jane Austen’s books are mainly late 18th –  early 19th  century chick lit.
Nora died back in NYC where her life began. She lived on the West Side. Some said that her movie You’ve Got Mail(which was a rewrite of The Shop Around the Corner)  was a kind of love letter to the neighborhood and a warning about what it was becoming.
Well Nora, I, for one, will miss you and I will remember you and I know that many more people would say exactly that same thing. The brave way you left us is duly noted also. Rest in peace.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Two Movies

On December 16, 2010 I included all the books in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy in my post Favorite Books – 2010. Although they are dark, dark, dark and very modern-edgy books they tell an absorbing story that begins with the sins of a corporation and many, many sins perpetrated by families and social institutions all made real in the person of the extraordinary character Lisbeth Salander, who could only be a product of the 21st century. The abuse that has been heaped on this one smallish woman is disturbing, but not totally unbelievable. Fortunately for Lisbeth and for us she has steeled herself, after being at the mercy of the system once, to never be a victim again. She is the bravest and most lethal heroine we have ever accepted as an actual person. Her tortured life gave her the anger that fuels her present agreement to battle injustice with Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist. They make an excellent and unlikely team. These books leaped out of Sweden and took readers by storm at the same time that we were informed that the author Steig Larsson had died and would not be able to publish any more books.
Now I have seen both of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo movies (the Swedish and the American version) and while neither had the impact of the book, both were very well done. Perhaps if I saw the movie before I read the book the movie would feel more impactful. The Swedish film did not stick as carefully to the details of the book. This film left some details out and condensed things a bit but it was very atmospheric, giving a more authentic experience of how the cold of Sweden plays a huge role in Swedish life. It was foggier somehow. In this version Mikael Blomkvist is played by Michael Nyquist, Lisbeth Salander is played by Noomi Rapace and Henrik Vanger is played by Sven-Bertil Taube.

The American version of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I just watched on pay-per-view, was truer to the details of the book. I cannot think of anything that was left out and I liked that. I liked the actors who were chosen for the film; they fit the pictures I created in my head when I read the book. The movie was a bit slicker, a bit less atmospheric, but I didn’t like it any less. It was quite graphic as was the book, I think more graphic than the Swedish version. It is definitely adult fare. But the story did not lose its edge even on this third time around and that is not an easy thing to accomplish. In the American version of the film Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, Rooney Mara plays Lisbeth Salander and Henrik Vanger is played by Christopher Plummer.

One for the Money – Movie

My sister did a two-for-the-price-of-one deal on Groupon so we went to see One for the Money, the movie made from the Janet Evanovich book of the same name. We both love reading Evanovich’s series of books (up to #18 now) about Stephanie Plum, skip tracer, and all her friends and family and coworkers living in the “Burg” in Trenton, New Jersey. Stephanie succeeds as a skip tracer almost totally by accident, since she has no real skills and she lives at the edge of disaster. She does have two very capable and sexy men who rescue her, a lot.
This is the first Stephanie Plum book that has been made into a movie. Katherine Heigl was cast in the role of Stephanie, Jason O’Mara  in the role of Joe Morelli, Daniel Sunjata in the role of Ranger, and Debbie Reynolds in the role of Grandma Mazur. The casting is OK; the only ones who really matched the images I had created in my mind were Morelli and Lula (Sherri Shepherd), who is not yet Stephanie’s partner in her skip trace adventures. Although Jason O’Mara does not look Italian, he does read like a young Mel Gibson and he is appropriately “hot”. Katherine Heigl was not bad as Stephanie; it was probably the fault of the writer that she was not as incompetent as she is in the Evanovich books. Grandma Mazur seemed much too with it and she didn’t have her Glock. (I read the first book so long ago that it is hard to remember if Grandma was already toting in Book 1.)
We did enjoy the movie. There were plenty of naked geriatric bodies (just one I think, but it was plenty) and at least one car blew up. Stephanie drove at least 3, maybe 4 different cars and including her own car which she lost in a repo early in the movie. It’s just that an Evanovich book is like a truffle or a chocolate covered cherry, delicious and fast, with an explosive center and this movie was more like a butterscotch candy, still pleasing but much slower to enjoy, without the indulgent center.

Baseball Movies

 

Although in my Moneyball blog I
made it sound like I am not a
fan of baseball movies, when
I thought about it I realized that
there are a number of great
baseball movies that I enjoy
enough to watch more than
once. Bull Durham is one of
my favorites.

Who doesn’t love Field of Dreams? Well there is probably someone, but not me. I believe.

A League of Their Own is another baseball movie I enjoy and have watched more than once.

While I admit that I may have watched The Natural because Robert Redford was in it and I used to watch anything with Robert Redford, it still qualifies as one of the great baseball movies.
And, although I have seen the most memorable scene from the Lou Gehrig (Pride of the Yankees) movie many times I am not sure that I have ever watched the whole movie, but it is a great baseball movie and as a classic it must be mentioned in any list of baseball movies. There are other baseball movies, but I have never watched them. I do apologize for making it sound as if baseball movies are boring. In fact, when I was younger, I used to feel that watching a baseball game was like watching paint dry, but now, I enjoy sitting at the local baseball stadium on a warm summer night watching our home team (even though they often lose), engaging in a little patter, and waiting for the fireworks at the end of the game. It is a very pleasant way to spend a summer evening. I must have spring fever. I just realized that this is my third article about spectator sports this week. Yikes!

Moneyball – A Movie

Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller, a movie about baseball, would not usually be up there on the list of movies I want to see, but everyone was saying good things about it, it only cost $1.20 from the Red Box, and it was Sunday afternoon again – kismet.
Not only is the movie about baseball, but it is about statistics and baseball, so my mind is thinking that this would be a very dry movie indeed. Yet it wasn’t at all dry. It wasn’t Hoosiers, but it was “outside the box” interesting. Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) was drafted before he had a chance to go to college and he played ball for a number of years, but he never lived up to the promise he showed in high school. He became a scout, drafting potential baseball “stars” for increasingly larger sums of money and he began to feel disillusioned about the game, believing it was becoming moneyball.
Beane becomes the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics (A’s) which is not a top level team. They have one of the lowest budgets in the league. When they lose to the Yankee’s in 2001 and then lose three key players who are wooed away by larger money offers, he knows he will never attract “star” players with the club’s operating budget. So Billy Beane has to find a new way for his team to succeed. He listens to the ideas of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a statistical whiz from Yale, who has a system based on the ideas of Bill James (a man who worked in a bean factory). Together they change the composition of the team, hiring improbable, but statistically appropriate players against the wishes of everyone else in the organization. When the team manager won’t play the newly hired players as needed, Billy Beane trades away some players that the team manager feels are the strongest on his team, but who statistically are not contributing to the win column. Once he is able to neutralize all the naysayers the team begins to win, eventually winning 20 games in a row, and setting a new record.
His faith in Peter Brand’s system challenged the way that teams hire players. It challenged the “star” mentality which did not always lead to the most wins. It also challenged the wisdom of the notion that paying huge salaries get “stars”, which gets wins. The Red Sox tried to hire Billy Beane and when he decided he could not leave the Oakland A’s they hired Bill James from the bean factory and used the statistical system to win a longed-for victory.
It’s a lesson that could apply to many fields of endeavor, the lesson that turning conventional wisdom on its head and getting your brain to accept a new perspective can set you free from stagnation and even failure. Not all situations provide the wealth of statistics we find in baseball. And, of course, there are many people who do not approve of throwing out the old scouting system and choosing ball players using statistical analysis. It seems to them that it takes the “game” out of baseball.
I was wishing such a system would work in politics, but complexity might make this difficult. It might be possible to pick Congress people based on statistics, but we would end up having opposing groups of people using statistics to get their way in Washington, which could be equally effective for electing people who did or did not support our viewpoints, and would eventually skew government in some of the same ways as money and special interests are doing now.

Cowboys and Aliens – A Movie

I have occasionally enjoyed a cowboy movie because there have been some really great ones. I also enjoy science fiction movies. So when a movie comes along called Cowboys and Aliens it piques my interest. I didn’t catch it at the theater because it came and went so fast, so I watched it the other night on pay-per-view. The film was directed by Jon Favreau. It stars Daniel Craig as Jake Lonergan, Harrison Ford as Woodrow Dolarhyde, Olivia Wilde as Ella Swenson, Sam Rockwell as Doc, Keith Carradine as Sheriff John Taggart and many more.
As the film opens we find Daniel Craig sitting in the middle of western scrub land looking dazed with a strange futuristic bracelet on his wrist which he cannot open. He looks confused and it turns out that he has lost his memory. A gang of scruffy prospectors happens upon him and it looks like he is toast but he has mad skills and makes short work of his potential killers. He heads off on one of their horses and arrives at the hellish, fallen-on-bad-times town of Absolution, in the Arizona territory. The town was born from the gold rush but prosperity has escaped it and civilization has moved on. As this totally dysfunctional town gets ready for a cowboy-type showdown, huge winged metal machines come roaring out of the sky with lights blazing. Long metallic lassoes whip down from these vehicles and drag the townspeople, one at a time, off into the wild blue yonder. Our hero, who is told that he is Jake Lonergan, a bandit wanted for stealing gold from the stage coach, is inside a prison coach headed for jail, so he is not taken. One of the flying winged machines gets shot from the sky and a wicked armored creature emerges, obviously alien. Jake’s bracelet activates and he finds that he can fight and kill the creature.
Ella, a fetching cowgirl wearing a gun belt and gun low on her hips, explains that she too is an alien and that these creatures are here mining for gold. She says they are on a scouting mission and if they succeed they will come back with all of their forces and conquer to earth. The townspeople decide to go get their loved ones back from the aliens. As they go they pick up other groups, including an Indian tribe also tracking loved ones. A giant battle eventually ensues which I cannot tell you about.
It could have happened. Maybe some aliens really did come to earth in 1873. Maybe some cowboys (and some Indians) did or did not rescue earth from the aliens. Of course we are still here so if it really happened then we know the outcome of the battle. However, our common sense tells us that it couldn’t have really happened, so how does the battle end? The movie is fun; watch it and see.

The Descendants – Movie

The Descendants was a quiet movie, not full of action, but full of the drama of human relationships. The King family lives in Hawaii, giving us a view of a life style we rarely see. There is a quality of light and color that I have not experienced in any other film but it seems to be natural to Hawaii. The house that the Kings live in is not palatial, it is comfortable, but it has an exotic air because of its location. Matt King (George Clooney) is one of those husbands and fathers who is so absorbed in his work that he is not really present for his family. His wife has been in a boating accident and is in a coma. He learns she has been having an affair. His teen-aged daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is away misbehaving at boarding school. His youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) is delightful and shows the wisdom the other family members are lacking. Both of these girls are really good actors. Alexandra refuses to participate in the family drama unless she can bring along her friend Sid (Nick Krause), who at first seems a doofus, but who grows on us and who seems to fit into this lost little family.
In addition to the interesting situations Matt King must suddenly deal with within his family, the family owns a gorgeous chunk of property on the island of Kuai, which came to them from the imperialistic activities of Europeans in the 18th century (or whatever antique century first brought Europeans to Hawaii). Matt King’s ancestors intermarried with Hawaii royalty and because they inherited, by European law, through the male partner, this unspoiled piece of Hawaii ending up belonging to a racially mixed group of family members (in a trust), who appear to be far more European than Hawaiian. Matt is the head of the trust and he must decide what will happen to the land. He has many relatives with an interest in the trust who want to cash in the property with various multimillion dollar development schemes.
Will Matt King find a way to save his estranged family and will he find a way to make the wise decisions about his wife and the Hawaiian property? How will he and his daughters deal with everything that is pressing in on their lives?  I can’t answer those questions, of course, but I can say that this is a movie I wouldn’t mind seeing again.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol – Movie

My sister and I have made it a new tradition to see a “hero” movie for New Year’s Eve or Day. We started with the Lord of the Rings, Part II and Part III. This year we went for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol for our “testosterone” fix. It was a good choice. Although heroism suffers with the lack of period costumes and horses, Mission Impossible had sheer adrenaline going for it. Watching someone walk down the side of a building that is so tall it disappears in the clouds, with a sandstorm approaching, and the walker’s technology malfunctioning has all the adrenaline rush you will ever need, along with a strong dose of vertigo and impending doom.
No part of this operation is perfect. The strategies they try are the definition of SNAFU. From the breakout at the Russian prison to the death defying activities in Dubai, to the sting type operation in Mumbai, nothing goes smoothly. This team, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), Willie Brandt (Jeremy Renner), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), and Jane Carter (Paula Patton), has only two experienced field members, Ethan and Jane. The other two are risky because they doubt their own ability to deliver the goods, and they worry us too. Equipment fails, precisely timed operations time out, people are not always where they are supposed to be doing what they are supposed to do. And the team is operating on a ghost protocol which means their parent organization has no knowledge of where they are or what they are doing. The one person with authority who was aware of the mission has been killed.
The mission is to catch the guys who stole the nuclear codes, and who put them together with a nuclear warhead and a satellite connection with the goal of triggering a global war, so the stakes are high. The bad guys and the bad girl are bad enough to kill MI operatives and to have that quality of every good villain, they appear invincible, they refuse to give up and die. We enjoyed the movie, got energized by the testosterone, and wished we looked like Jane Carter (Paula Patton) in that beautiful green gown.