Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Movie Reviews

A Mighty Wind – Christopher Guest’s paean to / satire of the folk music industry initially struck me as just a little too good-hearted; not unlike “Waiting for Guffman” and again short of the brilliant dog show satire “Best in Show”.

The story revolves around a reunion concert being arranged in honor of the recent death of a famous folk music producer. The Folksmen (think Kingston Trio), The New Main Street Singers (think New Christy Minstrels) and Mitch and Mickey (Peter, Paul and Mary without one of the guys?) pull the show together. Guest has his regular cast of improvisers, of which Eugene Levy has the juiciest part as the addled Mitch (once spurned by Catherine O’Hara’s Mickey, and a basket case when the idea comes about for the show.) John Michael Higgins and Parker Posey lead the impossibly perky Main Streeters, but there’s a regimentality about their scene as well. Jennifer Coolidge and Fred Willard have smaller but more broadly funny parts. The Folksmen are played by Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer. They overcome several challenges up to and including on the night of the show; Shearer deals with one more challenge during the epilogue.

You can’t complain about the quality of the music (at least the singing and playing), although appropriately, some of the lyrics are pretty inane. The more I write about this one, the more I like it. I was only about 6 or 8 when folk music was at its “peak” (in fourth grade we sang the song about the MTA rider who gets lost; “If I Had a Hammer” was a camp and grade school favorite. Good memories and a good movie.

The Namesake – My wife and I saw this one in the theatre. I was anxious to see if after having read the source novel and being familiar with the films of director Mira Noor (“Monsoon Wedding” and “Mississippi Masala” in particular). Faithful to the book, well-cast,well-directed, and well-acted, the movie gave little to complain about Jhumpa Lahiri’s book tells the story of an Indian immigrant and his family’s attempts to integrate with American society while maintaining their Bengali identities. The namesake of the title refers to the first-generation American son of the immigrant and his arranged wife, Gogol Ganguli, a nickname taken from the Russian author, turned into given name by the mores of American society (in which one doesn’t have both a outside name and a family name). “Why Gogol?” is for the reader/viewer to find out. Gogol’s life growing to and living as an adult in America is fascinating to watch as he tacks back and forth between the two cultures—almost marrying a very Waspish girl, then finding “love” within his own culture later in the story. All in all, solidly recommended for adults and teenagers.

Flags of our Fathers – This is one of Clint Eastwood’s pair of movies about the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II, the other being “Letters from Iwo Jima”. I got it in DVD as a recovery present from a friend at work. “Flags”, as you would guess, tells the American side of the story, from both the battlefield and from the homefront as the “heroes” of the famous picture of Marines raising the flag on the island, are escorted around the U.S. in a last-ditch effort to sell war bonds. Eastwood explores many aspects of the nature of heroism, and what keeps troops fighting, which is often not much about heroism at all. Wisely, Eastwood employs unknown actors to play the “heroes”. There were a few recognizable faces among the brass and stateside players, but primarily Eastwood lets the story carry its own weight. There’s a good bit of “blood and guts” especially early on as the invasion is depicted, so I’d limit this one to adults and older high schoolers.

Marie Antoinette – We got this one because of fall trip to Versailles and because of my daughter’s study of French in school. Kirsten Dunst, who plays the title role, is also a very beautiful and somewhat accomplished (two Spidermans; Eternal Sunshine; no doubt some others I haven’t seen) actress. Jason Schartzman, who plays the Dauphin and then King Louis, was terrific in “Rushmore”). Directed by Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”), “Marie Antoinette” is much more of a visual experience than a plot-driven story. Marie, a princess in her own right in Austria, arrives at the Court of France as a 15-year old promised to Dauphin Louis, a sluggish boy of 16 with a passion for locksmithing. She tries her best to ingratiate herself to Louis, to adjust to the attentions of the court, and eventually to enjoy all that is available.

The movie features the most fantastic depiction of desserts ever filmed (at least for a Hollywood production) and also some of the most outlandish hairdos, many of which resemble pastries. However, once she becomes mother to a dauphine and the long-awaited new dauphin, Marie becomes more serious about her role, to the extent that this is possible in the hothouse of Versailles.

Dunst is brilliant as the young, confused and eventually giddy Marie; she struggles somewhat with the more serious depiction near the end—perhaps that’s intentional to convey Marie’s actual struggle in the situation. Schwartzman was disappointingly flat as Louis—I think that the writers and Coppola could have made better use of this talented actor. There’s also some heavy innuendo about Marie’s relationship with a Swedish soldier (and perhaps the fatherhood of the dauphin) which I’ve read is not well-supported by history, though it adds a note of tension to the story.

Most memorable are the scenes where we watch Marie attended to by 15 or 20 courtiers (each with a particular role, determined by seniority) as she rises in the morning, and the even larger group in attendance as she delivers the couple’s first child. Talk about needing privacy. We also enjoyed seeing the mini-palace and country “cottage” that Louis had built for Marie after the birth of each child. We saw the palace and walk the cottage grounds (it was a working farm of sorts) when we visited last year.

A little offputting, probably for me moreso than younger viewers, is Coppola’s use of modern pop music in the score. My thought all along was that Mozart and others wrote some beautiful music that would have fit the scene better and sounded just as good. Still, I guess she felt she needed more of a hook to younger audiences that the appearance of Dunst. All in all, an engaging and informative movie, certainly appropriate for adults and all teenagers.

Bobby – My wife was anxious to see this film, which never made it to our town. I’m glad that it didn’t because we saved about $20 in the process. For me, the movie played out like that old series “Hotel” with James Brolin as the manager. The movie features a bunch of semi-integrated stories about hotel guests and staff in the day leading up to Bobby Kennedy’s assassination at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 6, 1968; like a disaster movie with the assassination as the disaster. The actor who played “Bobby”had a bit part at best—essentially a body double available for shooting by a nervous-looking Sirhan Sirhan. (As many shots as he got off (several people were wounded, but not mortally), you’d think that some member of the security detail would have killed him.)

The high-powered cast also includes such notables as Harry Belafonte, Lawrence Fishburne, Sharon Stone (playing nicely against type), Lindsay Lohan, William H. Macy, Martin Sheen, Helen Hunt, Anthony Hopkins, Elijah Wood and Demi Moore. Director Emilio Estevez manages to include a vanity part for himself as Moore’s long-suffering husband/manager. Seeing Freddy Rodriguez (“Rico” from "Six Feet Under") as a member of the kitchen staff was fun (along with the lookback at Don Drysdale’s shutout pitching streak of that season).

The best parts of the movie were the authentic footage of Kennedy during the presidential campaign (many times shown on TV’s in the movie’s scenes, at which time we knew we wouldn’t see actor “Bobby’s” face.) All in all "Bobby" was a big disappointment and far overshadowed by another recent Netflix offering “Thirteen Days” (2000), which I’ll review next. Both my wife and some Amazon.com reviewers seemed to like it a good bit more, so maybe there's hope for you.

Thirteen Days – Kevin Costner’s gotten such a bad rap lately that I was a little nervous about this one (though I loved “Bull Durham” and have liked some other Costner flicks “Field of Dreams”, “Tin Cup”, “Dances with Wolves”). Costner produced and starred in this historical drama about the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. Director Roger Donaldson gets great credit for creating a “edge of the seat” drama about events where the outcome is well known—JFK worked out a deal with Khruschev, the missiles went back to Russia, and Cuba remains anathema, albeit uninvaded, today. The suspense builds as JFK and his team figure out how to respond to the presence of nuclear missiles in Cuba that initially put about 100,000,000 Americans in the path of destruction. The military favors a “hit”, which is presented as the “only solution” on many occasions. But JFK insists that another solution be developed, which eventually is unearthed by Secretary of Defense McNamara and then implemented with great uncertainty as to how it will work.

High points are Bruce Greenwood’s understated performance as JFK (he even works in the back problem); Steven Culp’s eerie resemblance to and electric performance as RFK (Estevez should have cast him and redone his film); and an equally fine performance from the actor playing McNamara (who the casting, makeup and wardrobe people have captured perfectly). We also get to see a “Kennedy”—actor Christopher Lawford (son of Peter Lawford and Patricia Kennedy) as a Navy captain.

Low points are Costner’s annoying attempt at a Boston accent as he plays presidential aide and Harvard buddy Kevin O’Donnell (although the story is so engrossing that you soon are able to ignore it), and Donaldson’s use of black-and-white film for several scenes (mostly near the beginning and end) for no apparent reason (maybe to give the movie a documentary feel—in any event, I thought it was unnecessary). Exposure to the Soviet viewpoint is limited to a couple of scenes involving their UN Ambassador and Ambassador to the US. We probably could have traded a couple of scenes with Costner’s family for a closer look at the Soviet machinations during the crisis, which are depicted entirely as the subject of analysis and conjecture by the President, his aides, the CIA and the military.

The movie also made me think of what a great idea it is to have civilian control of the military. “Cooler heads”, thinking with broader perspective than the mission-focused military brass averted World War III and a possible nuclear catastrophe in this case. Of course, it can cut the other way too, as the civilian leadership that started the current Iraq War has demonstrated.

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