Thursday, August 30, 2012

“You are my Sunrise / My only Sunrise"

This is fucking great! vs. NOT EVERY GREAT MOVIE HAS TO BE AWESOME.

In a recent post at the Cooler: Sight and Soundless: How Cinephiles are Failing Cinema, Jason Bellamy states simply, A great movie is one that as you're watching it, and after, makes you think, "This is fucking great!" He goes on to exhort, We need to ditch this notion of over-praising movies we "respect," which is almost always code for "I didn't like it as much as I think I'm supposed to, but I'm not about to look like an idiot by saying so," and let our heart and our gut guide us. His statements here come in response to the Sight and Sound critics’ poll that supplanted Citizen Kane as #1 and included Sunrise, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Rules of the Game in the top 10.

In a rebuttal post in The Front Row, David Brody of The New Yorker contends that NOT EVERY GREAT MOVIE HAS TO BE AWESOME. He goes on to say, One of the dangers for a critic in putting the pleasures at hand on the top of the heap is that of taking familiarity for primacy, of mistaking habit for merit and comfort for virtue—to take the conventions of our own times and milieux for the center of the universe.

I, however, have always believed that a great movie elicits the response, as you watch it and after you watch it, "This is fucking great." And I don't believe Bellamy is contending that the pleasures at hand necessarily provoke this response. I might consider movies like the Nic Cage disaster film Knowing and the sci-fi film Tron Legacy "fucking great," but they are not "fucking great" with a difference. They compel me to watch them repeatedly for certain satisfying elements, but they don't compel me significantly in regards to the ideas and emotions they evoke.


Murnau's 1927 silent classic has been used as an example of a film that critics might choose for a top 10 list because they feel they must in order not to appear ignorant. Oddly, I was compelled by this film BEFORE I saw it when I read about it in a book about the silent era. I loved the title, and I was fascinated by its simple paradigm, its fable-like story that the book summarized with a series of stills. I immediately went to to buy a copy, but I discovered that it was not available in a new DVD. Much later, when it was re-released on DVD, I bought it and watched it twice. Again, love the title! Love the simple story and some of its stunning images. But I can't say I am greatly compelled by its overall effect. I can hum its praises but I can't sing them.

"You compel me."

I disagree with Brody. I have always felt that a GREAT movie HAS TO BE AWESOME! Like Bellamy, I have always let my heart and gut be my guide when it comes to naming great movies. If I had been called upon to contribute to the Sight and Sound Greatest Films list, this would be my guide, and I’m afraid I wouldn’t choose Sunrise for the top 10. In way of providing a euphemism for Bellamy's declaration, "This is fucking great," I feel that a great movie is one that as you're watching it, and after, makes you think, "You compel me." You want to talk about it. You want to write about it. (Bellamy exhorts critics to write about those less-known films they consider great.) You want to sing its praises. "You are my __________, my only __________." Fill in the blanks yourself.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Odd Life of Timothy Green

The Odd Life of Timothy Green features sensitive performances by Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton as Cindy and Jim Green, a married couple suffering the loss of childlessness. Rosemarie DeWitt is excellent as Cindy’s sister, a mother of children she drives to be perfect while David Morse gives a solid performance as the father who was not always there for Jim. As Timothy Green, young CJ Adams is nicely understated, allowing his whimsically cute face to establish a wonderful presence. As mutual outcasts, Timothy and a dark-haired hippie girl named Joni, played sincerely by Odeya Rush, establish a kindred-spirit alliance as memorably touching as the relationship between Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. While Geoff Zanelli’s thoughtful musical score suits the film’s fanciful tone, the talented cinematography of John Toll captures the dazzle of autumn woods and the simple beauty of small-town America. In addition, the direction of John Hedges (writer for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) makes up for any slips into silliness by keeping the pacing tight and carrying the story along to some delightful surprises. All of these strengths support an often powerful story about life and death; parenting, both good and bad; dealing with loss; coping with a child’s handicap; suffering ostracism and alienation; tolerating differences; persevering in the face of hopelessness; and gaining fulfillment in unexpected ways.

Sounds great! So let’s stop there. Oh, yeah, the story. I’ve told you what The Odd Life of Timothy Green is about, but I haven’t told you what it’s about. Okay, well, here goes. It’s about this couple, Jim and Cindy, and they are told they can’t have kids, so Cindy is at home crying, and Jim says they should hold one last hope, so they drink wine and write down their wishes for what their child would be like if they had one, each wish on a separate chit of paper, and they put the pieces of paper in a box, and they bury the box in Cindy’s vegetable garden, and I guess they have sex, but it only shows the bedroom light going out, but, hey, this is a Disney movie, and it rains even though there’s been a drought, and that night they find a ten-year-old boy named Timothy running around their house naked and muddy, and, uh, yeah, right, you guessed it, there’s a big muddy hole in Cindy’s garden as though something has grown right out of the box they buried, so that’s mind-blowing, yeah, but it beats dealing with adoption agencies (which is pointedly satirized by the film’s wraparound scenario in which Jim and Cindy are telling their bizarre tale to a dour adoption agent played by the ever-dour Shohreh Aghdashioo), and Timothy’s a cute, an enchanting little boy, except the one thing is, uh, here goes, he has leaves growing out of his ankles, but, hell, what are leaves growing out of ankles when you’ve finally got a kid and you didn’t have to go through an adoption agency or hire a surrogate mother who doesn’t want to give up the kid at the last minute and takes it to court, so they keep Timothy, and send him to school, a big mistake, because we know what kids are going to do to a boy like Timothy, and later the things Jim and Cindy wrote on the chits of paper all come true in one way or another, and Timothy is regarded as odd by some, but many are touched by him, and, finally, autumn comes and the leaves change color and fall, and Timothy’s leaves change color and fall . . .

Phew! Got that done. And now you expect me to tell you how silly this movie is. Well, I’m not gong to. Want me to tell you that it takes its premise to ridiculous extremes? Can’t do that either because it doesn’t. One of the best films of the year, The Odd Life of Timothy Green assumes the tone of a fable and delivers its many morals with charm and grace. Despite some of its simplistic, Disney Channel scenarios, it covers many serious topics very effectively. We’ve all suffered loss. There’s that something we’ll never get. This movie portrays that feeling sharply. Ever felt like an outcast? Ever yearned for a soul mate to share your alienation? This film captures the pain of that yearning. Ever been the parent of a child who is “different”? The Odd Life of Timothy Green zeroes in on that feeling sharply. This is not just a cute fairytale about a boy who brings joy and provides lessons and leaves people with the strength to go on. Behind Timothy’s cute face is an awareness of the hard things in life. Timothy knows what it means when the leaves fall.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Two Worlds of Total Recall

I had seen Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall when it came out in 1990, but I didn’t recall (ha!) how bad it was until I watched it the other night on Comcast. All right, it has a young Sharon Stone in sports bra and exercise tights demonstrating her flexibility in a fight with Arnold Schwarzenegger when it turns out she's a secret operative and not his wife. But the whole film plays like a bad late-70s, early-80s science fiction film using 1950s-quality special effects without any sort of textured atmosphere. In addition, in keeping with the late-70s, early-80s look of the film, most of the actresses have perms, clearly demonstrating what a bad hairstyle that was.

The basic plot of both the 1990 Total Recall and the 2012 “reimagining” is one involving a lot of chases and shootouts as a man (Arnold Schwarzenegger/ Colin Farrell), who starts as average-Joe Douglas Quaid but may in fact be secret agent Carl Hauser, runs from agents trying to kill him and attempts to stop the power-seeking villain, Cohaagen, from wreaking havoc in some way. (In the original film it’s all about controlling Mars and the mining of a precious metal; in the 2012 version it’s all about invading the Colony of Australia in a world in which uncontaminated living space is scarce.) In the 1990 version, the chases and shootouts become boring early on. In the recent version, many of the chases and shootouts are injected with a lot more imagination and some nice surprises.

On top of that, Total Recall (2012) has the distinct advantage of pitting Kate Beckinsale as the villainess, Lori Quaid, against Jessica Biel as the heroine, Melina. Action movie veterans Beckinsale and Biel provide one of the film’s main attractions when they go up against each other. Beckinsale’s thin face becomes frighteningly fierce, and she seems a lot more flexible and agile than Biel, probably due to all her Underworld experience, but Biel exudes convincing strength and determination. It’s up to you as viewer to decide which of them kicks ass the best. Beckinsale or Biel? Sometimes torn between the two is Quaid/Hauser, played with sensitivity and a compelling driving force by Colin Farrell.