A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Good Night and Good Luck

February 12, 2011

Goodnight and Good Luck

We needed something weighty and intelligent after the last couple days of brainless fluff. So we turn to this gritty black & white drama about a news man daring to do a piece about the sinister finger pointing of the McCarthy era of American politics. Actually upon refection and after watching this for a second time I realize that McCarthyism is the background for the movie but it’s not really what the movie is about. It is a movie about the power of journalism, television in particular, and the integrity of a group of men who believed that they had a responsibility to act according to their consciences and convictions.

The movie is bookended by an actual speech Edward R Murrow delivered at a broadcaster’s convention about television as a force. He says that there is a danger that this powerful tool could become nothing more than a source of entertainment and of placation for the masses. He knows that it has the potential to be so much more. The rest of the movie explores his commitment to that ideal – as he dares to use television to make a difference.

There’s a quick opening crawl that sets the tone for the time period and tries to explain who Joseph McCarthy was and what his influence was. I found this bit of text a little obtrusive and condescending. I’m guessing that Clooney was forced to add it late in the production because test audiences were unfamiliar with the history of the McCarthy era witch-hunts. I think that the movie does a pretty good job of showing us people living in fear of becoming the subject of inquiries without legal proceedings or evidence, so it seems to me that this bit of exposition is unnecessary, but that is a minor quibble. This is a bold movie, directed with flare by George Clooney who goes to great pains to make everything feel authentic. The black & white look, extensive use of archival footage and vintage advertisements, and the smoke filled rooms thrust us right into the time period he’s depicting. There is also an almost documentary feel at times as the chaos of a live television news broadcast is shown to us. The scenes of the control room at CBS hearken back for me to the way Ron Howard depicted NASA mission control in Apollo 13 – full of people with jobs to do who operate like a well oiled machine but appear to an outsider like they are in complete chaos.

This could have been a movie about Joe McCarthy. He makes a great bad guy. The movie does a good job of demonstrating the way that he used insinuation, implication and outright lies to silence his critics. It was marketed as a film about the David and Goliath story of Murrow daring to speak out against McCarthy’s tactics – placing himself, his staff and his network in danger of being slandered and investigated by McCarthy and his cronies. It’s fascinating to watch the archival footage of McCarthy that Clooney uses in the film – he’s such a clearly damaged and unstable person. We get to see him manic with rage at the notion of Communists infiltrating every corner of government (the central pillar of his political platform.) We get to see him humbled and broken at the end when he finds himself under investigation and censured by his peers. So there’s a great arc there for a thrilling political battle along the lines of Frost/Nixon (which we put in to watch as soon as this movie was over tonight.)

It could also have been a clumsy allegory for the modern politics of fear. Parallels can be drawn between the use of paranoia in the McCarthy era to take political power and the Bush era use of fear of terrorist attacks to cement GWB’s political power. I’m pretty sure, given Clooney’s political leanings, that such analogies were probably in his head as he made this film. But thankfully that is also not the thrust of the movie.

Instead we get a film that concentrates on the power of the media. There’s a side plot about a colleague of Murrow’s who feels himself hounded by the right wing press who have labeled him a communist sympathiser and pinko. And there’s Frank Langella as Murrow’s boss William Paley who pressures Murrow to avoid controversy for the sake of the network. Murrow frequently laments being beholden to a need to appease the advertisers who pay for his production. We also get to see him roped into fluff pieces – pre-recorded “interviews” with celebreties which he clearly abhors as an abomination. That, taken with the speech that bookends the movie, alters the tone. It makes the movie less about the struggle to confront a particular injustice (McCarthyism) and more about the bravery required to stick to an unpopular story which Murrow believes must be addressed.

The entire movie rests on the performance of the lead character. Oh, there are great supporting roles as well. George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr, Frank Langella and Jeff Daniels all do a great job and ground the film in its own reality. But it is David Strathairn that gets the most screen time and is the central figure. It’s a fantastic performance too. He presents Edward Murrow as a man of deep convictions and powerful beliefs. His intensity, his clipped diction, his precision all speak to the nature of his character. From Midsummer Night’s Dream to Sneakers I have never failed to love David in a role, and this movie is no exception.

Because this movie doesn’t sell itself as a simplistic political thriller and doesn’t try to make a political statement it rises to a higher level. It is a classy, well made, well acted gem that at its heart says that the people tasked with bringing us the news have a responsibility to stick to their guns and deliver tough messages. It makes me want to watch All the President’s Men, which I have never seen but I think would be a good companion piece. It also very much makes me want to watch The Manchurian Candidate – where the McCarthy analogue turns out to be a puppet of evil communists attempting to get a sympathetic figure into political power.

It’s also an even more timely movie now than when it was made. As we have seen in recent days there is considerable power in the new world of the internet and social media to shape the politics of the world. The advent of almost instant and universal communication is clearly going to alter the world – as long as the internet is not simply a tool for entertainment and placation. The difference here is that there is no central authority presenting us with a well researched story for our consideration. In the modern day we can pick and choose the news we observe and believe – which may be part of why discourse has become so fractured and partisan. I present this as simply an observation. I have no solution to this situation we find ourselves in as we move into the future.

Good night, and good luck.

February 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 264 – Calendar Girls

Calendar Girls – November 19th, 2010

After last night’s rage-fest we wanted very much to watch something that would make us happy. Something we could thoroughly enjoy. Something that wouldn’t make us tense or irritated or angry. Something made with the purpose of putting a smile on the face of anyone who watches it. And while this movie certainly has its sad bits, overall it is expressly intended to be a feel-good comedy. It also has the side effect of making me want to move to England, but a good many British movies do that, as did The Avengers (tv show, not the hideous modern adaptation movie that made me so very sad) and a good cup of tea. Anyhow, I did not come out of this movie pissed off. A little teary-eyed and certainly smiling, yes.

The teary-eyed comes from the purpose behind the calendar that is the center of the movie. After the death of the husband of one of the main characters, her best friend comes up with the idea of swapping out the annual craft-and-church photo calendar put out by the local Women’s Institute with a calendar featuring tasteful nudes. Of the women in the Women’s Institute. Who are all getting on in years, over 40 certainly, over 50 for more than a few. Of course it’s terribly scandalous for them all to do this and they’re all a little hesitant about it. Except Chris, who came up with the idea in the first place. And eventually they get enough ladies to do the whole year’s worth of photos and shoot the calendar, planning on donating all the money they raise towards buying a new sofa for the relatives’ lounge at the local hospital. It’s a touching sentiment and the movie does have a focus on it that works quite well at getting you sniffling.

The rest of the movie is about the lives of the women who participated and what happens to them after news about the calendar spreads and they suddenly find themselves in the papers all over the place and even across the pond in the US. On one hand, it’s fantastic, because the more they sell the more money they raise and they didn’t even expect it to really be a huge success even locally. On the other hand, the bigger it all gets the more they all get wrapped up in it, especially Chris, who’s very much enjoying having done something big and successful, to the detriment of her home life. Her son’s mortified by the whole thing and starts acting out (though in a relatively tame way) and her husband casually mentions to someone who turns out to be a reporter that he barely sees his wife now. And she’s not the only one dealing with fallout, though Ruth’s situation, with her cheating husband, was already in the works. It was just the calendar that acted as a catalyst for it all to come to a head.

While the heart of the movie is about Chris and her friend Annie and using the calendar to raise money to honor Annie’s husband, the point is about doing something daring and out of the ordinary. While I do love seeing the very proper looking Jessie calmly talk about the calendar over breakfast with her husband, and her matter-of-fact attitude about it all is fantastic (and played brilliantly by Annette Crosbie), and Celia Imrie is hilarious as Celia, and Helen Mirren and Julie Walters are wonderful as best friends Chris and Anne, I think it’s Ruth and Cora I love watching the most. Cora, played by Linda Bassett, has a story that doesn’t take up a lot of space in the movie, but if you watch closely you can see what her life is. She plays the piano for the WI. She runs a shop and tea room. She has a daughter whom she wants to be a good example to. And she has a tattoo. Eventually it becomes clear that she and her daughter seem to have gotten even closer because of the calendar. It’s a quiet background story but I love it. And then there’s Ruth, who’s very much devoted to her husband, nervous about life in general, and not at all on board with the whole nude calendar idea. Until she begins to suspect that her husband is bored. She jumps into the photo shoot, then later on learns that he’s been cheating on her, likely for some time. There’s a not-entirely-unpredictable-but-satisfying-all-the-same scene where she confronts her husband and his mistress, then heads off for Hollywood. Penelope Wilton does an absolutely lovely job with Ruth, playing her both meek and mischievous at the same time.

The whole falling out between Chris and Annie seems a little contrived, but it fits into the overall story that the movie builds. I have no idea if such a thing actually happened within the group of ladies upon whom this movie is based, but I suspect if it did this movie highly dramatizes it. But really, that’s a small quibble and I understand what the aim of it was. Not to say that falling outs don’t happen, but the specifics of this particular one, when put up against everything else, seems a little easily built and easily fixed. What I find more realistic and more touching were the piles of letters Annie gets after news of the calendar and its purpose gets to be widespread. So many letters, all from other people who’ve lost loved ones to cancer. It’s sad that I do find that so realistic, but it is. Which is why this movie is able to tug at those heartstrings so easily. Fortunately, the teary bits are spread out through the movie and the rest is just plain fun to watch. It’s full of strong characters, many of them female, doing fantastic and amazing things all because at the start of it, they wanted to help a friend.

November 19, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Calendar Girls

November 19, 2010

Calendar Girls

Our goal today was to find a movie that would not, under any circumstances, piss us off. Something that did not fill us with rage. So we turned to this charming, touching and wonderful movie based on a true story of a group of middle aged English women who published a nude calendar to raise money for a local hospital. We knew this movie was good, although neither of us had seen it, because when we suggested once watching it with Amanda’s mother she instantly declared “Oh, I own that one.” If Amanda’s mother, who hardly watches movies at all and owns even fewer, already owns a movie then we can be pretty sure it will appeal to us.

So. Calendar girls. I mentioned this movie when we watched The Full Monty because the two movies seem a natural fit. Both are true tales of a plucky group of British people who decide for some reason to take their clothes off. In this case it’s a group of women taking off their clothes to raise money in honor of the husband of one who dies of cancer. So start the waterworks right at the beginning of the movie. I will admit that there were large parts of the movie I couldn’t see too well because my eyes were so filled with tears. But for the most part it is tears of joy, because this movie is one all about triumph and about empowerment.

Which is pretty much the appeal of the movie. Yes, the initial impetus for the calendar is based in tragedy, but then the story becomes about overcoming that tragedy and doing something worthy. As the movie progresses and the momentum of the project builds there’s an infectious sense of wonderment to the story. I love seeing these women thrust by their bold actions into a wholly unexpected spotlight – and seeing how gracefully they react. All of this is made more delightful by the featurette on the DVD that contains interviews with the actual women upon whom the movie was based. They seem to be every bit as delightful in real life as their film counterparts are, which is something I hadn’t really expected. Usually there is only a tiny seed of truth to a movie “based on a true story” but in this case it looks as though almost everything that we see on the screen is a pretty accurate depiction of the true events. The only obvious alterations for dramatic impact are a change to the identity of the calendar photographer and a side-plot about how the W.I. doesn’t approve of the endeavour, which doesn’t seem to have been the case.

In the footage of the real life calendar girls on the red carpet at Cannes along with the actresses who portrayed them in the film there’s a strange sort of sense of heightened reality. Part of this must be due to the wonderful performances from the women cast to play the part of simple ordinary house-wives. Of course I expected nothing less than a stellar job from Helen Mirren, of whom I have been a big fan since I first discovered her on Prime Suspect. But this is an ensemble cast and every woman on the screen is absolutely captivating. It was delightful to see Penelope Wilton, who we enjoy so much in The Norman Conquests here playing a shy housewife who doesn’t at first realize why her husband takes so many business trips. Julie Walters is the heart of the movie as Annie – the woman who’s husband dies. She carries a lot of responsibility on her shoulders because it is her strength in the face of adversity that drives the movie. Walters’ performance is moving and heart-rending and uplifting.

These women did something outrageous, brash, courageous and amazing and succeeded beyond any possible expectation. It is a delight to enjoy this journey with them and as the movie draws to a close you can’t help wishing you could meet these women yourself and congratulate them. I could see this movie being something calming to throw in on a rough day simply for something fun to watch. And Oh! I haven’t even mentioned the amazing and beautiful countryside shown in both the movie and the special features. I want to move to England now even more than I did before watching this. This movie met every goal I had for tonight and surpassed it. I was not enraged. I was delighted and enraptured. Thank you, ladies.

November 19, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment