Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Netflix mini-reviews, summer 2007: 

In addition to the stuff I'm viewing via Netflix, Dan and I have also borrowed some stuff from friends, and Dan found some goodies in the cheap bin at Wal-mart, so I should really put in some reviews for those too. But for right now, I'll stick with the Netflix because I've got a nice tidy list in front of me to remind me of what I watched. First things first.

Missed lots of movies that came out during the years I was too ill to be both working and going to the theatre. One of those was "Pieces of April". It's a small film from 2002 starring Katie Holmes, who, prior to becoming Mrs. Tom Cruise, actually could act. Holmes plays April, a girl who wants to make Thanksgiving dinner for her family and introduce them to her new boyfriend. Sounds simple enough, but what family is ever really simple? April herself has had a long history of unreliability, whether with jobs, boyfriends and disappointing her family to the point where they've pretty much given up on her. Only her dad perseveres in trying to get his wife, mother and two children to drive into New York city to give April one last shot. And it may very well be the last, because April's mother isn't well. April, to her credit, is really trying this time, but she doesn't know how to cook, and what's worse, she discovers too late that her oven doesn't work! So she is forced to knock on the doors of neighbors she doesn't know, carrying a giant turkey and begging them to let her borrow the use of their oven. There is one person in her apartment building, played by Sean Hayes, who actually has a new oven, but he becomes angry with April at one point and takes the turkey hostage! The movie is by turns funny and sad and frustrating, very much like a real Thanksgiving with real family and friends. An underrated gem.

I then did a complete 180, genre-wise, and watched "Charlotte's Web" with Dan. This is a live action version of the classic children's book. It was filmed in Australia, I think, and took about three years to make. Dozens of pigs were used in the role of Wilbur, and surprisingly little CG here. Dakota Fanning plays Fern. The spider, of course, had to be completely CG, and Julia was the voice of Charlotte. Most of the other critters were real ones voiced by celebrities. Oprah was a goose. The story was pretty faithful to the book: a runt piglet (Wilbur) hand-raised by a girl (Fern) gets a temporary repreive from slaughter when he moves onto Fern's uncle's farm. Wilbur becomes a celebrity when his friend, a spider named Charlotte, weaves words about the pig into her webs. I saw the animated version at the theatre when I was in the third grade and loved it. This version is even better and is suitable for all ages.

Next was the 2006 movie "Marie Antoinette". I honestly didn't know quite what to make of this. Imagine the young queen as a modern day party girl but still in the original setting and then add '80's music. Some of the tunes suprisingly worked, like Adam Ant during a seduction scene, and then others just annoyed me, like during a formal dance. I guess anybody could relate to the delight of endless new shoes and chocolates. But in the attempt to keep the tone kinda light, the storyline ends prior to Marie's beheading. Overall, I liked it, but I thought it tried too hard to cater to a youthful audience.

Dan chose "The Prestige". I didn't know much about it, but decided to sit down and watch it with him. I was glad I did. It's the story of two highly competitive magicians, played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, around the turn of the 20th century. Each wants to become more famous by pulling off a stunt that the other can't do, and they'll risk injury or even death to do it. One even seeks the aid of Nikola Tesla, played by David Bowie. I figured out the secret to the ending fairly early on, but I enjoyed the path to its conclusion.

Then Dan surprised me by watching "Match Point" with me. I think it was his first Woody Allen movie, not a bad choice because Allen doesn't appear in it, heh heh. It's actually set in England. A former tennis star is hired by a wealthy man to give his family tennis lessons. The pro falls for his employer's daughter. Problem is, he also falls for the fiancee of his employer's son. He does the "proper" thing and marries the woman he is betrothed to and accepts an executive in training position with her father's firm. Instant wealth and social standing, so he should be happy, right? Nothing is ever that simple in a Woody Allen movie. There's an affair, an unintended pregnancy, and a rather gruesome decision that makes the film compelling throughout.

The next movie visited England again, but in a completely different context. "Bend It Like Beckham", which came out in 2002, is about a girl from an Indian family who causes a scandal because she wants to step off the path set for her and become a soccer star. She is pressured to be like her sister and marry a proper Indian boy in a traditional ceremony and become skilled at traditional cooking. She tries to explain to her parents how important soccer is to her, but they can't even accept the shock of her wearing a pair of shorts in public, let alone grant her permission to play on the local girls' team. So she sneaks out and leads a double life, setting off a chain of events both funny and bittersweet. Excellent movie about culture clashes and the complexity of trying to honor oneself and one's family simultaneously.

The same theme continued with my next pick, "Monsoon Wedding". It is set in India, but it is also about modern day values clashing with traditional. A young woman in a middle class family agrees to an arranged marriage even though she is already having an affair with a married man. Her betrothed, while Indian in heritage, has been living in America and expects her bride to move there with him. While bride and groom try to get to know each other during the elaborate five days of ceremonies surrounded by innumerable family members, there are secondary love stories, money worries, secrets revealed, and a monsoon. I found it immensely enjoyable and would watch it again in a heartbeat.

Dan and I ventured into new release territory with "Zodiac". This movie is based upon the real events surrounding the Zodiac Killer in California over a span of many years. The murders he (they?) committed are shown, but most of the film concerns those who tried to solve the crimes. The various law enforcement agencies involved had bureaucracy and jurisdiction issues that kept them from cooperating with one another, which probably led to the killer not being caught. Another complication was the letters sent to the media boasting of the murders, sometimes including details about them that no one but the perpetrator would know as well as puzzles in code. Robert Downey, Jr. plays a newspaper reporter who gets a little too close to the killer. Jake Gyllenhaal portrays a cartoonist obsessed with solving the puzzles who becomes even more obsessed the Zodiac Killer with each passing year and who eventually writes a book. Dan had a very valid complaint: why, when the story was supposed to emcompass nearly 20 years, did the main characters not appear to age or even change hairstyles? Other than that, though, it was a fascinating and well-done film.

Next, I returned to the world of documentaries. I watched "49 Up". It's the seventh in a series of films chronicling the lives of a select group of people from England. The original documentary, "7 Up", was done in 1964 and interviewed several seven year olds from various social classes. The kids were asked what they thought they would be like as adults, what jobs they might pursue, whether they had boyfriends or girlfriends, whether they thought they'd marry and/or have children of their own, etc. Then every seven years, these same people were sought out and interviewed again so you could see how much they and their views did or didn't change. This has been a challenging project, both for director Michael Apted and for his subjects, not all of whom enjoy having their private lives exposed to the world over and over. But curiously, only one person completely stopped participating in the documentaries. At least four had moved to other countries, but they all agreed to continue, with some being filmed in Australia or Spain or Scotland or America and some coming back to their old neighborhoods in England to visit while the cameras rolled. It was amusing to see old footage of a 14 year old swearing they would never marry or have children and then see them at 49 with their spouses, kids and possibly even grandkids. There were some who had already at age 7 mapped out their education and profession and ended up doing exactly that. Others had unexpected detours in career, mental or physical health. I had seen "35 Up" when it came out, and it was like catching up with old friends, finding out what had happened in the intervening 14 years. This series is so much more satisfying than reality TV ever could be because you can't possibly script it. Check it out. Oh, and don't miss the bonus material on the DVD: a half hour interview of Michael Apted by Roger Ebert.

Finally, I caught "Spellbound", which came out in 2002. It's a documentary about kids in the National Spelling Bee. Yeah, sounds like a real yawner, but it's not. Of course, I may be biased because I was in the Colorado/Wyoming State Spelling Bee, and the kid that won went on to win the national bee and is now the pronouncer for it. Anyway, like "49 Up", the kids were in a similar age group (generally junior high: I think the cutoff age is 8th grade, and the youngest ever participant was nine years old) from various socio-economic backgrounds. One girl from Texas had parents who spoke no English, and she was pretty much self-taught without the aid of any electronics. One boy in a wealthy community in California, originally from India, studied via computer every single word that had ever been given at a national bee, had tutors in various languages so he could learn foreign roots of words used in English, and was constantly drilled by his father. The other kids were somewhere in between these extremes. Some were obsessed with spelling, but others preferred math or other subjects and just happened to be good at memorizing words. They also had varying reactions to the stress of the bee and their placement in it. Small spoiler: one of the interviewees does win the whole thing. I enjoyed it a great deal, and I recommend it to any word geek.

Ok, I'm caught up, at least until "Best in Show" arrives on Saturday. Would you believe I started this post on August 17?? That's how brain fogged I am, sometimes taking up to three days to get through a single paragraph.

Will post a bit more about my actual life at some point, at least I plan to.

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