Banner photo of Larry Eugene Meredith, Ronald Tipton and Patrick Flynn, 2017.

The good times are memories
In the drinking of elder men...

-- Larry E.
Time II

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Movies (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this look at films I liked, I spoke of a film the critics and the public got wrong. I blame the misconceptions on the marketing of the film. It was promoted as a horror film; a monster film, and fairly similar to other such movies in that genre. It the still here we see one of the main characters, the blind girl Elizabeth, being attacked by one of the monsters in the forbidden woods.  Just below is the trailer for the film.

The promotion would attract fans of there-is-a-wolfman-under-the-bed crowd. You begin watching this film expecting some terrible creature to begin chewing up these poor, naive villagers, blood and guts galore, and terror everywhere as one by one the main characters are slain. Who will survive; how will the Creatures be stopped?

Thus when the secret of the Creatures is reveled many found the rest of the film anticlimactic and the critics claimed the problem was the reveal came too early. The critics dismissed it as just another M.
Night Shyamalan gimmick film. This was not a straight forward monster movie. The horror is not that there are monsters in the woods that we can isolate ourselves from and be safe, but that we can't escape evil because it is not the world out there, it is the nature inside. We are our monsters. Where we go our evil will go because it is part of our nature. Good and Evil always share the table with us. Thus "The Village" remains one of my favorite films.

Anyway, here are some films I saw for the first time in 2015 that I feel were worth seeing. None of them involve car chases, spaceships or Hobbits. There is little in the way of swearing or sex or violence, although there is a little of each in a couple. They are quiet films for the most part that tug at one emotionally, have a sense of purpose, teach us to be more observant of our world, less judging of other people and are generally uplifting, even if sometimes downers in the middle.

"ST. VINCENT" (2014, writer-director Theodore Melfi.

I spent sometime recapping "The Village" because I wanted to begin with another film I say was mismarketed to some extent. "St. Vincent" starred Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy, and the ads I was seeing when it was released made it look like another one of her of prat-falling, scatter-brained comedies.  Apparently no one was too thrown off by this. It not only garnered very good critical reviews and several high nominations for awards, it earned over $44 million in the domestic box-office.  I know they talked about this being a comedy and all, and it was, but

it was more a dramedy, funny at times, but both thought provoking and heartbreaking as well. McCarthy was fairly subdued and really not much of a factor in the whole scheme of things. Murray and a young actor named Jaeden Lieberher carried most of the plot.

I will try to explain a bit about St. Vincent without any spoilers. Murray plays a down-on-luck Vietnam veteran, Vincent MacKenna. It is close to the characters he has down pat, sardonic, grumpy, anti-social. He is an alcoholic, chain-smoking, hooked on gambling, apparent loser, whose only friends are a (you ready) a sex club performer, who is both pregnant and Russian (Naomi Watts), and his cat, Felix. We find him desperately lacking needed funds early on, but not necessarily why he is in the straits he is in or why he so desperately needs this money. A Bookie is after him as well as other creditors, making it easy to assume his source of desperation is a large gambling debt, which makes one wonder why he can't lay off his betting. He also makes some mysterious visits to a hospital, where he is well-known by the staff, and where he pretends to be a doctor, and that is all I'll say about that here.

His path crosses with a Maggie Bronstein (Melissa McCarthy) as she is moving into the house next door and her moving men accidentally knock a

tree branch down damaging Vincent's car. It is not the best way to meet each other. Maggie is a single mom recently divorced from her carousing husband. She has been left to raise their 12-year-old son on her medical technician salary. Despite the scruffy, grumpy nature of Vincent and the circumstances of there being throw together, Vincent does end up being a babysitter for the boy; she because she needs someone to look after the child and he because he  needs the money. The man and boy bond in a way that helps both to grow as people. 

There come some crisis along the way and the boy's father interferes with Vincent and the boy's relationship. Things begin to look very bad indeed and on that note I will end this synopsis and suggest the film is well worth the time to see and learn the outcome for yourselves, then you will understand the title of St. Vincent.  (This film does contain cursing, mild sexual situations and some violence.)

"LIKE SUNDAY LIKE RAIN" (2014, writer-director Frank Whaley.)

I viewed a lot of films this past year where a child and an adult-misfit crossed paths for the betterment of each. This next film got just-slightly favorable ratings and reviews, but I enjoyed it and would have given it a higher rating than others did. In some ways this first group of movies is as if different writers/directors were given a very brief plot outline and asked to do a variation on the theme, thus four of these films have a number of similarities.  They do have  a number of differences though. First of all, let's consider "Like Sunday Like Rain".

Instead of an alcoholic, sardonic man as the adult, there is Eleanor (Leighton Meester), a college-age (23), but not in college, young woman finding herself suddenly adrift in life, breaking up with her cheating boyfriend and thus losing her home, because she was living with him. To make matters worse, the boyfriend shows up at the cafe where she waitresses, causes a scene and gets her fired. She makes an attempt at getting help from her family, but that doesn't exactly work out and she is now out in the world left to her own devises, something she is hardly prepared to do.

Meanwhile, we have Reggie ( Julian Shatkin), a 12-year-old musical prodigy and cellist; a young genius who lives with his cold and indifferent parents, who are always flitting off somewhere and

leaving him in the care of a babysitter. His parents are very well-off. Despite being a child, Reggie does pretty well at making his way in the world. Being wealthy, he bribes people to meet his needs and requests and seems in control of his situations; note I say seems. 

When we first meet Reggie his mother is facing an immediate crisis. She has a trip about to begin just as she loses the babysitter. Although Reggie can actually handle things on his own pretty well, his parents view him as a helpless child and his mother is now desperate to find someone, anyone, to be his babysitter.

Thus, Eleanor needs a job and Reggie's mother  needs a babysitter and so our two characters come together for the remainder of the film . They learn from each other, share their loneliness with each other and in a sense grow-up together. We eventually learn these two characters have more in common than it first appears. This includes music, from which comes the title, "Like Sunday Like Rain." I am not going to explain what crisis arise except it all progresses to a somewhat bittersweet ending.

"LOST CHRISTMAS" (2011 Written by David Logan & John Hay; Directed by John Hay.

This film also involves a bonding between an adult and a child, but before we get into all that, I want to point out the obvious, this is a Christmas story. 

I confess I have a fondness for Christmas movies that began in my childhood. It has been close to a lifetime tradition of mine to watch these movies each year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Although I enjoy several such films
and ones quite diverse, such as the first two "Home Alone" outings, "Scrooged", "Harvard Lampoon's Christmas Vacation", "Holiday Inn" all comedies, and then more serious attempts such as "An American Christmas Carol", The Little Shop Around the Corner", "The Nativity" and several versions of "Dickens' Christmas Carol", I have four long-time favorites. These four have become classics. I will speak of them in no particular order.

First is "A Christmas Story" (1983) based upon Jean Shepherd's boyhood
reminiscences. This film is not like the others I will soon mention in that it
has no supernatural or miraculous events associated with the story. Ralphie is simply a normal boy in a normal family growing up in a small town sometime in the early 1940s.  Although exaggerated for comedy effect, the story, characters and setting ring very true to me. I have told my own children if they want a good idea of what my life was like as a child, watch "A Christmas Story" (if you want an idea of how it was in my teen years, watch "American Graffiti"). I was around Ralphie's age in the the same time frame, and although I never wanted a Red Ryder BB Gun, such things were common in comic book ads and I can certainly relate to the coal furnace and overbearing snowsuits and the school bullies.

My other three Christmas films I traditionally and faithfully watch all have some grounding in reality and fairly accurately portray a period of time, but each also carries a bit of supernatural  magic. 

There is "A Miracle on 34th Street", a film dealing with the over
commercialization of Christmas even back in 1947.  The question here is whether Kris Kringle, Macy's Department Store Santa Claus, is the real deal or not. This film doesn't leave the realm of the possible, but it does leave you with the question unanswered. Edmund Gwynn makes a perfect Santa.

Next we have the best of the film versions of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Along the lines of "Miracle on 34th Street" this British film also deals with greed, but more importantly examines a man's life, what made him what he became and whether he can find redemption through the supernatural intervention of Spirits. This is a superbly done film all around, but what really elevates it to the best of the breed is the performance of Alastair Sim. There have been numerous movie and TV versions of this classic novella, but no other actor was able to convincing pull off both the mean and miserly Scrooge and the converted joyous generous one with such believability. Perhaps Sim's pliable rubber face helped pull this off, but it is a true tour de force.

My last, and one of my favorites as a film period, is "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946). This movie was list 11th on the AFI's Greatest Films of All-Time List. It not only captures a time and place, but portrays its characters as real people with both virtues and flaws. This is especially true of the hero, George Bailey.

My introduction to the story of the Building & Loan manager and the guardian angel took a circuitous route. I knew nothing of this film until a much later date than the other three I have described, even though it was the earliest of them released.

Near Christmas of 1977 I flicked on a new TV movie staring Marlo Thomas. She was the daughter of Danny Thomas and had become a big star at the
time due to her hit sitcom, "That Girl". Now here she was playing this character named Mary Hatch in a story called, "It happened One Christmas". She was a young woman who grew up in this small town, wishing to escape it, but always held back by circumstances. She married a struggling mechanic named George Bailey and because of certain events, she became the manager of the Hatch Building and Loan, where she battled to keep it out of the hands of the grasping bank owner played by Orson Welles. Through mishaps, she decided she can't go on and is about to commit suicide when a somewhat blundering angel named Clara stops her. This angel, played by Cloris Leachman, then arranges for Mary to have never been born and shows her what things would have been like if she hadn't been there. 

Boy, I liked the story and boy was I surprised when several years later, after a protracted copyright battle allowed its public showing again, this old film starring Jimmy Stewart appeared  on TV about a character named George Bailey. Seeing these two films will give you a good lesson in the difference between artisan and artist or seeing a show at the local dinner theater and seeing it on Broadway. Still, "It Happened One Christmas" is testimony to a good story; "It's a Wonderful Life" lifted it to greatness.

And so we come to another film I saw for the first time just last year, "Lost
Christmas". I like this British Film starring Eddie Izzard. It has more in common with the last three movies I spoke of than with "A Christmas Story", that is there is something miraculous involved. The film is set in modern day London (at least I think it is London, it is a British city nonetheless). We open on Christmas Eve in the home of a fireman and his family. They have just given their son a puppy, which the boy names Mutt, and are ready to settle in for the night when the father is called to report. The boy, not wanting his dad to go hides the car keys. This does not prevent his father leaving, just delays him a bit for the mother takes the man in her car. On the way they are both killed in an accident. Well, Merry Christmas everybody!

Time jumps ahead a year and we see the same boy, living with his senile grandmother. He is now a street punk, a petty thief and under probation. He is off to report to his probation officer along with his puppy, a full grown dog now. He stops to see his "fence" to sell a bangle he has stole and leaves Mutt waiting outside. When he comes out the dog has disappeared.

In the meantime, we have a man found lying in the street, seeming to be dead, froze to death, but as another man approaches the body, the prone man's eyes snap open and he gets up. He cannot remember anything about himself, not how he came to be lying there, what his name is or anything else, but he does have the power to see instances in the life of anyone he touches and the ability to find lost things.

It is shortly after this that the man who lost his memory meets up with the boy who's lost his dog. They begin their search together. The man is called "Anthony", because it is the name on the workman's jacket he is wearing, but
it isn't really his name. The boy is known by his street name of "Goose", and is so usually called such that his own grandmother has trouble remembering his real name. Within the course of their journey they intermingle with an Indian woman, who has lost a sentimental piece of jewelry, a woman, who has lost a child, a Doctor, who has lost a letter, and a man, who has lost a precious book. By the end of the film we see how all the characters weave into the life of Goose and "Anthony" and we finally learn who the man is and how he ended up where we began the tale. 

The film has a certain melancholy to it, but it also has lessons on self-sacrifice, trust and, like "It's a Wonderful Life", how we all fill in a hole that could be a pit to someone if we weren't there.

"AKEELAH AND THE BEE" (2006, written & directed by Doug Aitchison.)

This film was released back in 2006 and it has been popping up on the TV premium channels many times since. I always skipped past it, put off by the unusual sounding title. I thought it was one of those National Geographic type movies, perhaps some backwater third world country native involved with beekeeping. Then one night there it was, right at the beginning when I was laid back just wanting to chill with a movie. 

As it turned out the backwater third world country was Los Angeles and it had nothing to do with buzzing bees. Akeelah (Keke Palmer) is an 11-year-old girl who despite the odds against it became obsessed with going to the National Spelling Bee.  Well, that still didn't sound overly exciting, I mean -- a spelling bee? I was wrong again. This film took on the intensity of any other good movie about an unlikely hero taking on daunting odds. 

It was very interesting to learn what kids went through to succeed in this
spelling competition.

This also had that child and adult, mentor and mentored aspect. Akeelah is eventually coached, against his better judgment at first, by a Dr. Joshua Larabee (played by Lawrence Fishburne ). Her quest is also complicated by the fact her mother is dead set against her doing this and eventually forbids it, forcing Akeelah to take desperate measures. 

She runs into fierce competition from Dylan Chiu, who has already placed second in the last two National Spelling Bees and who has a father that insists this is disgraceful showing is not to happen again. This film will teach us a lesson about fair play, tolerance, sacrifice and sympathy for others.

THE FIRST GRADER (2010, Written by Ann Peacock & Directed by Justin Chadwick)

This is somewhat different from the others I have covered. It is a biography,
telling the story of real life Kimani Maruge (played by Oliver Litondo), an 84-year-old Kenyan who decides to take up the government's new offering of a free primary school education to all those who have a Kenyan birth certificate. Kimani never had any kind of schooling and he is determined to enter the First Grade and learn how to read.

His desire is not easily met as officials and others oppose him being there. Meanwhile, through flashbacks, we learn much about the man and the history of his country, not to mention the brutality of humans against other humans. The tortures Maruge endured in his life are not always easy to watch, but his determined struggle to be all he can be and the inspiration he became are.

1 comment:

Jon said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your reviews and you mentioned some of my personal favorites - like "The Village", which hasn't received the recognition that it deserves.

You also included many of my favorite holiday films - including "A Christmas Carol" with Alastair Sim, which remains the absolute best version.
I had completely forgotten about "It Happened One Christmas" with Marlo Thomas.