Monthly Archives: November 2013

Movies to be Thankful For.


Thanksgiving often gets short shrift in our mad rush to get to Christmas, but a handful of exceptional films can help make your Turkey Day special. Here are a few of the best:

Everyone thinks of Miracle on 34th Street (1947) as a Christmas film, but it’s even better when viewed at Thanksgiving. It begins during the Macy’s parade, and takes place in the space between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve – making it a perfect film to kick off the holiday movie season. Plug it in after this year’s parade has ended, and while the turkey is still cooking. (Besides, there are already too many movies to watch at Christmas, am I right?)

For something more traditionally holiday-oriented, consider Home for the Holidays (1995), Jodie Foster’s second film as a director, and a bracingly honest look at family dynamics. There’s very little plot – Holly Hunter visits her mom and dad (Anne Bancroft, Chartles Durning) for Thanksgiving; mayhem ensues – but a superior ensemble cast (also including Robert Downey, Jr., and Dylan McDermott) provides plenty to watch.

If Foster’s film is mostly comic, the under-seen The Myth of Fingerprints (1997) offers a darker spin on a similar premise. (Like the holiday itself, most Thanksgiving movies focus on families reuniting for dinner.) The film focuses on a grown son (Noah Wyle) meeting up with his brother and sisters at the family’s New England homestead, but autumn’s chill has nothing on the frosty reception that awaits them from their quietly dysfunctional parents (Roy Scheider, Blythe Danner). Fun fact: co-star Julianne Moore went on to marry the film’s writer/director, Bart Freundlich.

Katie Holmes is now best known for her role as the former Mrs. Tom Cruise, but in the smart indie comedy Pieces of April (2003) she plays against her squeaky-clean type as the black sheep of a suburban family who offers to host Thanksgiving dinner in her inner-city tenement apartment – only to find out her oven is broken. Great performances are plentiful here, from a cast including Oliver Platt and Patricia Clarkson as Holmes’ parents.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), my perennial pick for Woody Allen’s best film, is bookended by Thanksgiving celebrations: extended families, too much to drink, the wrong things said, the recriminations. Much happens in between those two Thanksgivings, of course, but both of those holidays sit there like touchstones for Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her relations to count on in the middle months. If you haven’t seen Hannah lately, it’s worth revisiting.

Finally, there’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), a genuine modern holiday classic. Steve Martin, playing a Chicago executive stuck in New York on business the day before Thanksgiving, is desperate to get home – so desperate, in fact, that he’s willing to follow the traveling advice of an oafish salesman (John Candy) to get there. Great moments of high-energy, slow-burn comedy are leavened with the kind of sentimentality that’s only tolerable during the holiday season. It’s a movie I’m thankful for.

(IMAGE: Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street. File photo.)

Flashback: “Love Actually,” Reviewed: The More the Merrier?


Love Actually was released 10 years ago this week. Here’s my review from November 2003. In retrospect I was too hard on this one: Christmas confections are just that, and I can’t deny that the film has wormed its way into my Grinch of a heart.

Love Actually is Kill Bill with smooches instead of swordfights. Just as Quentin Tarantino’s recent film set aside character, subtext and nuance to dial up the body count, so has Richard Curtis excised the extraneous bits from your standard romantic comedies to concentrate on the “aw” scenes: a woman lands a date with her dream guy! A best man falls in love with the bride to be! A boy bonds with his stepdad! Say it with me: Awww.

As a screenwriter, Curtis is responsible for the popular British romances Four Weddings and a Funeral and Bridget Jones’s Diary (plus the small, sweet masterpiece The Tall Guy). It’s not surprising that Curtis, in his directorial debut, would return to his familiar London in Love, but his chosen route – tracking 10-plus love stories in about two hours – forces him to pilot the tour bus at breakneck speeds: the surroundings are a blur, and every so often you feel the wheels leave the road.

For everyone who enjoys romantic comedies but doesn’t have the time to see as many as they’d like, Love Actually is like a greatest-hits collection. Hugh Grant, as an affable Prime Minister, falls on his first day for a member of his household staff (Martine McCutcheon). The PM’s sister (Emma Thompson), an effortlessly devoted family woman, finds her world rocked with the gradual realization that her husband (Alan Rickman) is probably having a workplace fling.

Newlywed Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean) can’t understand why her husband’s pal (Andrew Lincoln) is cool to her, until she sees his secret all-bride-no-groom wedding video edit. Cuckolded Colin Firth heads to France to mend his broken heart … and falls for his Portuguese-speaking maid. There’s even some parental-child love, thanks to widower Liam Neeson (after all, what’s a Curtis movie without a funeral?) connecting with his 11-year-old stepson over the boy’s blooming love for a classmate.

These threads, and others, work as well as they can; everything moves so quickly (the action counts down the five weeks before Christmas Eve) that Curtis has his hands full keeping the stories straight, and the actors can barely register past their pre-existing charm.

There are exceptions: Bill Nighy (Underworld), as a has-been rock star promoting his treacly comeback album, offers refreshing dollops of honest levity; and Thompson, in one heart-rending scene of aching realization, delivers a moment of emotive power as incongruous to her surroundings as a Shakespearean sonnet in a greeting card. Most everything else in Love Actually is a holiday trifle: undeniably enjoyable, but too aggressively sweet for its own good.

(IMAGE: Hugh Grant and Martine McCutcheon in Love Actually. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.)

“About Time,” Reviewed: Life, Love, and the Do-Over.

About Time

What would you do if you could travel in time and relive – or, more to the point, change – an event from your past? Would you ace a failed interview for a job you really wanted? Buy a bunch of once-cheap stock in Apple Computer? Throw a ball again for your beloved childhood dog?

When the gangly and newly 21-year-old Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) is told by his dad (Bill Nighy) that the men in his family have always had this ability, he knows immediately that he won’t use the power for fame and fortune – for him, it’s all about love.

That’s the premise of About Time, a broadly sentimental romantic comedy from the man who wrote the book – or at least the screenplay – on that genre. Richard Curtis has been the screenwriter for Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999) and Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), and he wrote and directed Love, Actually (2003), already something of a contemporary holiday classic.

Curtis’ films are not without their common traits: They usually take place in and around London, with well-educated British types living cool but not showy contemporary lives; there’s typically a sassy but funny roommate around, tossing off one-liners; and don’t be surprised if a voice-over narration tells you what the movie is already showing you. They’re also smartly written, brightly funny, and suffused with enough earnest emotion and sadness to win over the most hardened viewer.

Those cards are all dealt in About Time, which wisely decides against wasting effort on explaining its sci-fi conceit. Instead, it simply sends Tim into the timestream to make the most of an opportunity to kiss a girl on New Year’s Eve, or to plan an awkward seduction of the knockout (Margot Robbie) who’s staying with his family for the summer. It would be easy to cast Tim’s actions as those of a dark lothario, but he’s not looking to trick women – he’s just trying to improve himself.

Then he meets Mary (Rachel McAdams), an American expat, and everything clicks – for them, and the movie. Settling into a mode of domestic bliss, About Time stops being about romance and discovers a broader idea of love – as Tim uses his power to help his sister and his friends; to explore and fine-tune his life and his relationship; and to deepen his bond with his father.

Nighy, the British character actor whose career took off after a key role in Curtis’ Love, Actually, is in fine form here; as Tim’s dad, he offers the sage wisdom of a man, thanks to his temporal powers, is literally wise beyond his years. The central love story in About Time is well assayed by newcomer Gleason and seasoned pro McAdams (who ironically played a similar role in 2009’s The Time Traveler’s Wife), but Nighy’s wry warmth in the background adds a rich depth to this amiable story – reminding us that love is all around, and in a variety of forms.

(IMAGE: Rachel McAdams and Domhnall Gleason in About Time. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.)

“12 Years a Slave,” Reviewed: Chains and the Man.


Steve McQueen’s raw, illuminating 12 Years a Slave (R — violence, language, sexuality) delivers an emotional wallop like a tightly balled fist to the solar plexus – a punch in the gut fueled by a century-and-a-half of pent-up ferocity. If slavery is our country’s great historical shame, then we finally have our Schindler’s List: A narrative film that eloquently depicts a grotesque reality with more power and immediacy than any history book we read in school. Is it any wonder it took a British director to hold this mirror up to our face?

A true story based on its lead character’s memoir (originally written and published in 1853), 12 Years shows us the horrors of slavery through the unblinking eyes of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who in 1841 was living happily with his wife and two kids in Saratoga, NY. His contentedness is presented as a bubble waiting to be burst. A professional violinist, Solomon is whisked away to Washington by two men with the promise of a performing gig – and promptly drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery in New Orleans. His new name is Platt, and one of the first pieces of advice he receives involves the potentially fatal consequences of arguing his true identity to his new “owners.”

Ejiofor, who first emerged on moviegoers’ radar screens with Dirty Pretty Things (2002), has spent the last decade being the best thing in a varied slate of pictures – not always good stuff. But in 12 Years he finally has a project worthy of his talent. In scene after scene filmed in agonizing close-up, Solomon’s anguish and rage is made palpable as he suffers one indignity after another, from the petty tyrannies of a young slave driver (Paul Dano) to the epic savagery of Epps (Michael Fassbender), a plantation owner whose lust for one field slave (Lupita Nyong’o) doesn’t escape the notice of his imperious wife (Sarah Paulson). But Epps saves a special vengeful rage for Solomon who, despite coming to accept the survivalist wisdom of supplication, can’t hide his intelligence, or his pride.

McQueen, a British filmmaker with only two previous features to his credit – 2008’s Hunger and 2011’s Shame, both starring Fassbender – has approached 12 Years a Slave with a stark evenness of tone that focuses our full attention on the story and its characters. There are no pauses to drink in the ironic beauty of the antebellum South, and even the gospel music “interludes” carry dual meaning – their inspirational melodies are like a sedative that Solomon refuses to use to dull his pain. (Until, heartbreakingly, he gives in.)

McQueen’s unsentimental treatment of Northrup’s plight is almost that of a documentarian: This account simply feels real, and that reality is chilling. That sense of authenticity is given even more heft by the film’s full-blooded depiction of a plantation culture in which whippings are considered a bizarre form of daily employee evaluation, and a man can be hanged from the neck for hours, still alive, while business goes on as usual in the yard around him.

The grim business of 12 Years a Slave is anchored in Ejiofor’s portrayal of a man whose faith in justice keeps him going: Solomon knows who he is, even if identity must be kept an open secret, and his will to survive is informed by a certainty that one day he’ll be free again. Even in the darkest moments of this essential film, that certitude is the compass that guides the story – like our once-errant society – toward the promise of something better.

(IMAGE: Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Films.)

“Ender’s Game,” And The Only Controversy That Matters.


Ender’s Game, the new sci-fi extravaganza that opens today in area theaters, comes pre-loaded with big stars (Harrison Ford! Ben Kingsley!), solid actors (Viola Davis! Asa Butterfield, a.k.a. the kid from Hugo!), and a pedigree of crowd-pleasing success (a source novel that’s been a best-seller for almost 30 years). It also, however, comes with more than a smidge of controversy … which, sadly, is all anyone seems to want to talk about.

As New York magazine helpfully breaks down hereEnder’s Game — the story of a futuristic Earth whose militaristic society must rely on a super-talented warrior child (Butterfield) to lead our armies against an alien armada — is based on a book by Orson Scott Card, who has in the past used his celebrity to espouse some strident views about homosexuality. A devout Mormon, he thinks it’s a sin, and that efforts to make it illegal are a good thing. In these days of pro-gay-marriage laws sweeping from state to state, that’s an opinion guaranteed to ruffle some feathers. Despite the fact that Card has dialed back his rhetoric in recent years — I’ll leave it to other people to diagnose whether that’s due to a naturally evolving opinion or simply an attempt to salvage book sales — plenty of equally passionate pro-gay-marriage folks would happily see Card shipped off to a galaxy far, far away.

That’s all well and good: opinions, as they say, are like spleens — everybody’s got one. (Or is that some other body part? I always get that wrong.) Personally, I think Card’s views are prehistoric and should be treated as such. But on opening day of a movie based on his most popular book — a book that, while I haven’t read it, to my knowledge offers no viewpoints on the issue of homosexuality — I kind of wish we could focus on what’s important, such as: how’s Harrison Ford’s hair in the film? And does he wear that silly earring of his in this one?

Whether we’re talking about Card or Mel Gibson, or Woody Allen, or Roman Polanski, my feelings are always the same: the art should be judged on its own merits, not on the basis of how much we like the artist. When a controversial creator is stupid enough to turn one of his projects into a polemic for an inflammatory personal cause, that’s different. But I’m much more interested in whether Ender’s Game is any good than in whether I’d want to have dinner with the guy who wrote Ender’s Game.

Lionsgate didn’t screen the movie in advance for critics in our region, so I can’t say yet whether the film (directed by Gavin Hood, incidentally — Card didn’t even write the screenplay) is worth watching. I’ll find out, and let you know. But if you choose to watch it yourself, try to put aside thoughts of the homophobic goon who wrote the original text back in the ’80s. There are more urgent factors to consider here. Like, the earring.