Friday, April 02, 2010

March 2010

It was another very light (for me) movie month, owing to the usual string of excuses. The big highlight were the reruns, but more on them momentarily.


Joan and I saw a couple of new movies in March, and I saw one "new" movie on my own. I say "new" because Harmony and Me was completed in 2009 and evidently already available on DVD, yet is making the rounds in a variety of local theaters anyway. I became aware of this indie comedy because I am a fan of one of its cast members (Suzy Nakamura), and her Facebook page kept promoting her appearance in the movie. In actuality, she is hardly in it. After the screening at the local Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax, I submitted this review to IMDB:

Halfway through the film Harmony and Me, the central character's ex-girlfriend sizes him up and declares, "You know how sometimes you're watching a movie, and halfway through, you realize that you don't care about these characters? That's what's wrong with you." The line simultaneously demolishes our suspension of disbelief and reminds us what's wrong with Harmony and Me. Ultimately, it's a chore to care much about Harmony, a sad-sack amateur songwriter with a boring day job and a bevy of quirky co-workers, quirky friends, quirky family members and quirky neighbors, all of whom are immensely more watchable and fun to listen to than he is. Shot in three weeks, Harmony and Me is an indie comedy with a budget so low that the cameraman couldn't afford Windex to wipe off the perpetually dirty lens. The film is relentlessly quirky, with some inspiringly improvisational-type humor, and only loses its footing when it settles for being quirky for quirk's sake. As Harmony, glum Justin Rice whines to anybody who will listen that his ex won't stop breaking his heart, and you can't help wondering how Jessica (fresh-faced Kristen Tucker) put up with this whiner for ten minutes, let alone a full year, before dumping this loser. (Tucker's shtick about mourning the relationship several weeks before actually breaking up with him is the funniest thing in the film—somebody needs to give this gifted actress her own comedy.) Viewers with a high tolerance for quirk are encouraged to give the movie a chance for the occasional moments of brilliance and for the excellent supporting players—including a genius turn by director Bob Byington and recurring Modern Family actress Suzy Nakamura, who has been cast as so many doctors that she deserves a medical diploma.

Neither of the two first-run films I saw with Joan are likely to linger in my memory for very long. Alice in Wonderland, the Tim Burton version of the classic Lewis Carroll books, was visually arresting—it had some of the coolest optical effects I've ever seen on film —but meandered a lot until the final battle scene, which was extremely well done. Meanwhile, the Clint Eastwood-directed Invictus featured a perfectly cast Morgan Freeman as South African President and rugby fan Nelson Mandella, who uses the World Cup as a way of pulling his country together. It's the thinnest wisp of a movie plot idea; the climactic game is full of slow-motion effects and one outrageously misleading and factually iffy sequence involving a jetliner buzzing the stadium that the audience is meant to think might be an act of terrorism—it's a despicable bit of trickery and dishonesty.


Prior to seeing the Tim Burton remake, I decided to acquaint myself with the 1951 Disney animated version of Alice in Wonderland, which is lively and colorful and imaginative but completely devoid of a real story—Alice merely stumbles into one seemingly drug-influenced situation populated by bizarro characters after another. Every five minutes or so, the hookah-smoking caterpillar or hammer-head birds are dismissed and the next set of weirdos are introduced. I had tried to watch this movie many years ago and was turned off by its lack of a cohesive story, but this time I was more comfortable with just letting the movie take me on its psychedelic journey.

Late in March, I took one of my periodic trips up to Northern California to meet Jay for some musical-theater fun. Although he is usually starring in a show, this trip featured him as an audience member rather than an actor. We planned to attend two musicals I was interested to see for the first time: Kismet and Sweet Charity, respectively. Since I already had both of the movie versions on DVD, I decided to compare and contrast the productions. It's interesting that both shows are based on earlier works—the 1953 Broadway production of Kismet (and subsequent 1955 film) derive from a 1911 play, and the 1966 Broadway production of Sweet Charity (and 1969 film) come from the 1957 Federico Fellini film Nights of Cabiria—which I also own but have not yet seen. Even the music from Kismet is based on earlier material, specifically the compositions of Alexander Borodin (1833-1887).

Of the two, Kismet is by far the more enjoyable film. While not quite as lavishly produced as the best musical movies, it's still quite colorful and enjoyable, even though some of the musical numbers have been excised. Taking place in Baghdad during the time of the Arabian Nights, the story features a charming rogue of a hero, a couple of attractive heroines, an alluring harem of assorted lovelies, a despicable bad guy and a happy ending. What's not to like?

The film of Sweet Charity is infinitely more problematic. The first movie of choreographer/dancer-turned-director Bob Fosse, the adaptation has been mucked up with the addition of any number of optical effects (slow-motion, freeze frame, backwards-filming, etc.) that fatally distract from the characters and story. Presumably, these effects were considered innovative in the Sixties, but they are deadly antiquated by today's standards—as is the creaky plot involving a "dance hall girl" who dreams of finding a decent guy. As a big fan of Shirley MacLaine, my hopes were high, but aside from the occasional bright spot (such as the performance of "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This"), the movie falls flat.


Joan had expressed interest in the suspenseful war film The Hurt Locker (which I'd seen last year and liked a lot), so I eagerly accepted her invitation to see it at the Paramount Theater; the movie went on to win a bunch of Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Paramount is also beginning to screen some classic films, such as 1951's The African Queen (to celebrate its finally being restored and released to DVD). Although I know I saw the movie back in college, I remembered almost nothing about it. Seeing the restored version on the big screen was indescribable; it looks so spectacular that you come away feeling that it could have filmed fairly recently. Everything about this movie is perfect—the performances, the story and especially the direction (by John Huston). Understandably proud Paramount's bigwigs insisted on showing a brief documentary of their elaborate and immaculate restoration, but Joan and I felt this would have been better shared after the movie rather than before. Even so, I am greatly looking forward to more Paramount screenings in the year ahead!

THE FINAL TALLY (with 1-10 ratings)

Invictus (5)
Alice in Wonderland-1951 (8)
Alice in Wonderland-2010 (7)
Sweet Charity (5)
Harmony and Me (6)
Kismet (8)

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