Saturday, January 30, 2010

January 2010

Last year, I took on the impossible challenge of trying to see an average of one movie a day. To my surprise, I was actually able to complete this task for nearly half of 2009 before I became distracted by other things. This year, I'm going to try simply blogging about the movies I watch. That should prove more manageable.

Although I would like to have hit more out of the ballpark (I could only rate one movie out of 20 a perfect "ten"), there was certainly a lot of variety in my selections this month. I suppose that's a nice way of saying it was a catastrophically mixed bag, but we strive for optimism around my house.


Of the half-dozen current films I sat through, the first was the best: last year's Avatar, less than a month old but still #1 at the box office as I write this at the end of January. It has trumped Titanic as the all-time box-office champ. It's a total bliss-out, and although it's admittedly a retread of Disney's Pocahontas, what really confounds me is that I did not even realize until after my second screening of it that it's really the ten billionth regurgitation of the old "Big Lie" plot I'm eternally complaining about—a man deceives a lady with whom he ends up falling in love, then she discovers his deception and their true love is thrown into jeopardy. I can forgive few movies for using this incredibly creaky plot, but this one is a dazzler.

Rounding out the other first-run movies seen in a theater this month: Youth in Revolt, a quirky but funny movie starring Michael Cera as a nice guy with a romantic problem that only his evil alter-ego can solve; Nine, a quite stylish musical with an excellent cast that didn't deserve the critical drubbing it received (although it does play a lot like a remake of All That Jazz, and there's so much cigarette smoking in it that I feared I might get movie lung cancer); and When In Rome, a repellent Disney-produced "comedy" starring Kristen Bell and her adorable smile, which I saw at a free screening, and I still want my money back. (Su, you sure can pick 'em.)

Meanwhile, I caught a couple of recent flicks on DVD screeners: The Fantastic Mr. Fox, a mostly enjoyable Wes Anderson-directed stop-motion adaptation of the Roald Dahl children's novel, and The Blind Side, an above-average drama with Sandra Bullock as a sassy but big-hearted rich woman who takes a hulking, illiterate black youth under her wing and helps educate him and turn him into a football hero. Yay, liberals!


Of the four movies I caught at revival theaters, the big revelation for me is what a knockout Jennifer Jones (who died in December) was. Although I sat through Madame Bovary on DVD last year, I apparently failed to be beguiled by the abundant beauty of Jennifer. Traveling to Palo Alto to visit my friend Jay, we saw two of her dramas at our favorite haunt, the Stanford Theatre: Love Letters (1945), in which she plays an amnesia victim who falls in love with creepy Joseph Cotten, and Portrait of Jennie (1948), in which she plays a ghost who falls in love with creepy Joseph Cotten. Neither movie was truly outstanding, although both had their moments, howsoever brief.

It was also finally time for me to encounter the famous 1948 critics' favorite, The Bicycle Thief. Directed by Vittorio De Sica and starring a cast of non-professionals, this Italian classic tells the simple story of a poor man who lands a job hanging posters, but is immediately thwarted by the theft of his bicycle. Although the movie kept me absorbed throughout, I was a little disappointed by the downbeat ending—which, while I recognize that it was a landmark denouement for its day, still left me a little unsatisfied. (Like Jay, I demand a little justice from my dramas.) Meanwhile, I didn't last longer than 30 minutes into the surprisingly boring 1965 comedy-western Cat Ballou, starring Jane Fonda back when she was simply smoldering.


My friend Anna chose two of her favorites for us to watch together: 1996's supernatural thriller The Craft, and the 2004 indie comedy Mail Order Wife, both of which I enjoyed. Mail Order Wife, in particular, had a number of unpredictable twists that kept me guessing throughout.

Rounding out my other selections from the DVD vault, in order of quality:

Sons and Lovers, the Oscar-winning adaptation of the classic D.H. Lawrence novel I was supposed to read in high school, about a young artist in a mining community whose mother postively suffocates him with love.
The Smallest Show on Earth, an amusing 1957 British comedy co-starring Peter Sellers as the projectionist of a decaying movie house.
Big Jake, a violent 1971 John Wayne western with a kidnapping and revenge theme...not surprisingly, from the same screenwriter who penned Dirty Harry, released the same year!
Bunny Lake is Missing, a vaguely Hitchockian suspenser about a young woman whose young daughter inexplicably goes missing from her school, and the resulting manhunt, which yields a surprise ending.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire, a serviceable 1961 end-of-the-world thriller.
The Glass House, a TV movie co-written by Truman Capote and featuring Alan Alda as a nice-guy prisoner who gets on the bad side of mean prisoner Vic Morrow.
Bluebeard's 10 Honeymoons, a George Sanders film released the same year (1960) as my beloved Village of the Damned, this one casting him as a serial killer.
Quacker Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx, the movie "comedy" Gene Wilder released the year before Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, proving once again that I don't like Gene Wilder movies where he has to do a funny accent (this time an Irish one). And what an awful title, too.


Interestingly, the first movie I saw of 2010 wasn't on DVD or on TV or at the theater. For several years, I have wanted to see Alan Alda in a filmed stage play about a married guy who romances a married woman. You may think I am describing Same Time, Next Year (1978), but no. While it's true that I do adore that movie, I am referring to a TV movie called 6 RMS RIV VU from four years before Same Time, Next Year.

Based on Bob Randall play, 6 RMS RIV VU stars Alda and Carol Burnett, both of whom were nominated for Best Lead Actor Emmy awards in 1974 for this comedy. To my amazement, it has never been issued on DVD and I've never found a copy for sale anywhere on the Internet. Naturally, this only intensified my interest in seeing it. As luck would have it, the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills offers patrons the chance to watch a video copy on a private TV monitor. So did it live up to my expectations? Not entirely, although it was certainly wonderful to finally scratch the itch. It's not bad, but production values were extremely low (it was reminiscent of watching a videotaped-live sitcom like All in the Family), and it contained numerous dated jokes of the "Hey, your shrink is my shrink's shrink" variety. Still, it's always nice to see Alda and Burnett, both of whom starred in the stellar 1981 comedy The Four Seasons, written and directed by the great "Hawkeye Pierce"!


Not included in my final tally (below), but worth mentioning anyway, are a few favorite movies that I was successfully able to foist upon my friends. First, Su and her family agreed to sit still long enough on my birthday for a late-evening DVD screening of my all-time favorite movie, Village of the Damned (1960), at their Santa Monica home. Usually I don't like people around me to talk during a movie, but in this instance, I was hanging on every one of their comments each time they predicted what might happen next. It was one of the highlights of the month for me, a memory I will cherish forever.

Next up was my victim Leticia, who was hijacked to a New Beverly Cinema showing of 1971's hilarious comedy A New Leaf, directed by and starring Elaine May, with Walter Matthau as her husband and would-be killer. The story of the film's agonizing birth is almost as interesting as the story told by the film; it's well worth researching (or asking me to tell you about). The movie also single-handedly turned me into a gigantic fan of mystery writer Jack Ritchie, who penned the marvelous short story it was based on. Leticia was left lukewarm, but seeing it on the big screen for the first time in my life, with a theater full of like-minded and laughing patrons, was an absolute joy for me.

Finally, during my visit to Palo Alto to see Jay, I brought along my DVD of the magnificent Hobson's Choice (1954), which I discovered last year. I knew he would enjoy the story, the brilliant humor, the acting and the conclusion, which contains utterly no trace of injustice (a pet peeve of his). If you've never seen Charles Laughton in this movie, you owe it to yourself to give it a peek!

THE FINAL TALLY (with 1-10 ratings)

Avatar (10)
Nine (9)
Sons and Lovers (9)
Youth in Revolt (8)
Big Jake (8)
The Smallest Show on Earth (8)
Mail-Order Wife (8)
The Craft (8)
The Bicycle Thief (8)
The Blind Side (7)
Bunny Lake is Missing (7)
6 RMS RIV VU (7)
Love Letters (7)
Bluebeard's 10 Honeymoons (7)
The Glass House (6)
Portrait of Jennie (6)
The Fantastic Mr Fox (6)
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (6)
Quacker Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (3)
When in Rome (2)

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