Saturday, December 27, 2008

Four Movies

When I came home after church on Christmas morning, I was so exhausted that I expected to do nothing the rest of the day except nap, read, and eat junk food. But after an hour or so of sitting around, I decided on a more festive way of blowing time (and money), to cheer myself up while spending the holiday alone. I decided to go to the movies.

It so happened that Wehrenberg's Ronnie's 20 cinema was open on Christmas day. I asked one of the employees whether they got paid extra for working on a holiday. Alas, they did not; movie theatres are apparently exempt from that requirement. Nevertheless I was glad they were open. I enjoyed several snacks at their snack bar (designed to simulate the concession stand at a drive-in movie, complete with tables shaped like cars from the 1950s). And I watched four movies, one after another.

There were several movies I could have seen, but didn't. I didn't feel up to the manic energy of Yes Man (a Jim Carrey comedy). I wasn't inclined to make a charitable donation to the Church of Scientology, so that ruled out Bolt (an animated film featuring the voice talent of John Travolta) and Valkyrie (a World War II flick starring Tom Cruise). My personal circumstances (confirmed bachelor, spending Christmas Day alone) made a romantic comedy like Marley & Me seem too cruel, a gushy melodrama like Australia (starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman) too self-indulgent. My resolution to avoid sequels put Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa out of the picture. Nevertheless I wasn't in a bad enough mood to enjoy an angry, ultra-violent, expressionistic flick like The Spirit.

Taking away movies I had already seen, that left six choices that I was prepared to consider. The fact that I didn't choose to see Doubt or Slumdog Millionaire was entirely a result of schedule conflicts. Once I had decided to see four of the six movies in one afternoon, my choices fell quickly into place. I bought all four tickets during one trip to the box office. This was partly because the line was so long that I had a horror of going through it three more times. But another reason was so that I would now be committed to staying out in public, experiencing the light and the noise and the crowd, and watching all four films before I went home to be alone again. And now I think my choices turned out quite well.

My 1:15 show this Christmas was Bedtime Stories, a family comedy featuring Adam Sandler as a hotel handyman who changes lightbulbs in the very hotel his father started. The movie begins by introducing Sandler's character as a child, helping his Dad run their little motel by day and avidly listening to the old man's bedtime stories by night. Unfortunately, their business wasn't successful. When the father sold the hotel to a bigshot developer, he made sure his son would have a future in it. Happily, he didn't live to be disappointed by his son's fate: driving a crummy pickup and wearing overalls and taking orders from snotty co-workers, resenting the way life has passed him over, and barely involved in the lives of his sister and her two children.

But things change when Sandler babysits the children for several nights. Each night he tells them a bedtime story, to which the kids contribute their own ideas. Each subsequent morning, the bits the kids thought up come true in weird and wonderful ways, from a rain of gumballs to Sandler getting a chance to run the hotel, get the girl, and save the day.

It will be obvious to anyone familiar with Sandler's films that this is not a polished, sparkly Hollywood fantasy. It has its rough edges. Some of its goofball humor falls flat. The better actors in the cast (some of whom are very good) are stuck playing the most cartoonish, over-the-top parts. Sandler's character is more earthy and flawed (all right, stupid) than the golden hero one might expect in a cinematic bedtime story. And though the naughtiness is kept to a minimum, the adult characters are motivated, most definitely, by adult motivations. But it's fun nevertheless. We're not talking about big-budget special effects or thrilling action. It's just a nice little movie with a healthy share of warmth, laughs, and adventure. If I was one of those critics who marks films like grade-school essays, I would give Bedtime Stories a good, solid B.

Second, at 4:00, I saw Frost/Nixon. This is an account of British talk-show host David Frost's 1977 interview with former president Richard Nixon. Played respectively by rising star Michael Sheen and one of my longtime favorites Frank Langella, the two men engage in an intellectual battle spanning four 2-hour filmed conversations. The goal of Frost's team was to goad Nixon into confessing to criminal wrongdoing and abuse of power during the Watergate coverup. Nixon, for his part, was trying to make a political comeback. Their duel of wits and wills makes for a very intense experience in which words, instead of weapons, thrill the audience. Joined in the cast by Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, and Toby Jones, the lead actors of this film deserve at least one nomination come Oscar time. For the scene alone in which Nixon phones Frost late at night, this may be an unforgettable film.

Was the ideology driving the characters a bit over the top? Perhaps. Was its timing (coinciding with the evening of Bush 2's presidency) accidental? Perhaps not. Does the film betoken an unfair tendency to dismiss all but the failures and crimes of a Republican leader, because he is a Republican? If so, that would be the only point on which this movie dissatisfied me. I reckon it deserves an A-minus.

Third, at 7:00, I gave a solid A to The Tale of Despereaux, a lovely animated film based on a book that, contrary to my general creed, I had not read before seeing the movie. It's a touching fairy tale featuring a lovely princess full of longing, a kingdom imprisoned by its king's grief, a savage world of rats, and a nervous world of mice. Living among the palace rats is a sea-rat named Roscuro, who shrinks away from his people's savage way of life, while also carrying the guilt of causing everybody's problems. Meanwhile, a tiny, fearless young mouse named Despereaux adopts the code of chivalry and sets out to make things right.

I started crying quite early in this movie. The tears running down my face had little to do with any particular sadness in the movie. I was simply that moved by how beautiful it looked, how lovable and lifelike the characters were (particularly Despereaux and Roscuro), and in general by the perfection of the animation, the story, and everything else I saw and heard. It was all that a fairy-tale movie should be. It went right to my heart.

And it hardly hurt it to have an incredible corps of vocal talent involved: Matthew Broderick and Dustin Hoffman as the hero rodents, Sigourney Weaver as the narrator, Kevin Kline and Stanley Tucci as the magical chef and his familiar, Emma Watson (late of the Harry Potter films) as the princess, William H. Macy and Frances Conroy as Desperaux's parents, and in various other roles the familiar voices of Frank Langella, Tracey Ullman, Christopher Lloyd, Richard Jenkins, Robbie Coltrane, Ciaran Hinds...the list goes on and on. It's an amazing cast for a single, animated movie. But I think their acting talent has something to do with the sense of profound beauty that unstoppered my tear glands throughout this movie.

My last film of the evening, at 9:40, was another tear-jerker: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as a remarkable pair of lifelong lovers whose lives flow in opposite directions, meeting for a while in the middle. As Benjamin, Pitt plays a man born elderly, and who then grows younger while everyone else around him grows older. Blanchett plays Daisy, the love of his life, who reveals the whole story to their daughter as she lies on her deathbed in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. The story unfolds as the daughter reads Benjamin's journal, in which he describes his travels and the way fate continually brought him and Daisy together. It remains up to Daisy to describe how it finally (?) separated them.

Also contributing to this excellent film are the acting abilities of Julia Ormond (as the daughter), Tilda Swinton (as the other woman in Benjamin's life), Jason Flemyng (as Benjamin's father), Elias Koteas, Taraji P. Henson, and Jared Harris, among others. The make-up effects are incredible. But the movie could not have worked without a breathtaking story, an amazing and beautifully-crafted flow of imagery, and the career-best acting of both of its leads. It isn't just a tear-jerking love story; it is a moving, heartbreaking, healing life-story. It deserves an A+ grade if any movie I saw this year does.

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