A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 475 – Big Fish

Big Fish – June 18th, 2011

Oh, holidays are fraught with peril when it comes to this project. We’d planned to watch this movie for Father’s Day, but then Sundays are the days we tend to go out for theatrical movies if there’s something we want to see and the thing we want to see also has an associated movie in our collection. So what to do? Well, we figured since we weren’t going to have time to watch this with either of our fathers for Father’s Day, we’d go ahead and watch it the day before. Good enough, right? And besides, we did dinner out with my dad last night, watched fireworks with him tonight and we’re going to be doing the heavy lifting for my folks tomorrow when they get a new air conditioner. I’d say we’re golden.

I’ve got to say, the father at the center of this movie is not much like my father. My father has always been a quiet guy, more given to listening than talking and while he loves a good fantasy story he doesn’t create his own. Ed Bloom, on the other hand, well, he loves to tell a good story, and even better if he can make a good story into a great story with some embellishments. Unfortunately his habit of embroidering the truth with fantastic threads like mermaids and werewolves and the obviously false has left his son feeling like he can’t trust a single word his father has ever said. After all, if he lied about the mermaids and werewolves, what else was he lying about? Where does the truth begin when you peel back the fantasy? Will Bloom has no idea and it’s split him from his father for years. Until his father is on his deathbed and Will finally goes home.

The conflict here is the conceit of the movie. As Will struggles to understand his father and discover what the facts are, we get to see the stories he’s so frustrated with. While Albert Finney, as his elderly father, sits in bed and tells story after story to Will’s wife, Ewan MacGregor plays Ed as a young man, beloved by his entire home town, befriending giants, visiting towns that no roads lead to, performing in a circus, accidentally robbing banks, going on daring secret missions for the Army and so on and so forth. So really, the conflict between father and son is set up to be a series of bumpers in between the fantastic adventures of Ed Bloom’s youth.

It’s really a very interesting set-up. I like it even though the bumper portions are a bit of a bludgeon when it comes to emotional impact. There is no question that Ed is dying. So we know that Will is going to have to deal with his feelings about his father somehow. And I will give the movie immense credit in making both Will and Ed sympathetic characters even as they’re at odds with each other. It’s clear that Will loves his father but finds the constant tall tales frustrating and even embarrassing at times. But he’s not really shown to be a stick in the mud. He’s just frustrated at not knowing what to believe. And Will could have been the bad guy here. The father who lied to his son. But he’s not. He’s a good natured guy who always tries to do the right thing in his stories and, it seems, in his real life. I do have one quibble with him when it comes to the circus but I’ll get to that in a moment.

It does help Ed’s character that we get to see him in his own stories. And Ewan MacGregor does a fantastic job as the young Ed, setting out to see the world, encountering the bizarre and unexpected and taking it all in as wonderful. He is an eternal optimist who isn’t afraid to get in there and work for what he wants. His stories aren’t about how he cheated someone out of something or tricked someone. They’re about him helping people and falling in love. Each of the stories feels fuzzy around the edges, a little off-kilter, a little unreal. Which is the point. But they’re done so well that they feel like memories and stories at the same time. And MacGregor sees them largely like we’re supposed to: With a sense of wonder. And I get the impression that that’s what Ed is looking to inspire when he tells these stories. He wants that sense of wonder to be continued. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but I like to think that Ed had that sense of wonder his whole life and wanted to share it.

The other thing that helps Ed out here is his wife, Sandra. The story of how he met her and wooed her and got married is as fantastic as any of his others, but it’s clear in the present day that she does indeed adore him. She’s loved him for decades and he’s loved her and they are utterly and thoroughly devoted to each other. There’s a lovely scene where he’s in the bath in his pajamas and she climbs in, also fully clothed, and just holds him and Jessica Lange, as the older Sandra, is so perfect in that scene that just remembering it makes me tear up. This is a marriage between two people so utterly in love that it’s apparent just by looking at them. And Sandra is a lot more down-to-earth than her husband and can communicate with her son a lot better. But she still loves Ed’s stories and sees nothing wrong with them. It’s a point in his favor. A big one, for me.

A negative point for him would be that he does end up getting three of the people he meets signed with a circus that apparently isn’t going to pay them very well or ever let them out of their contracts. It seemed an odd thing to add in there, having Danny DeVito’s ringmaster, Amos, specifically mention that the contract he gives Karl the giant is pretty much taking advantage of Karl. Especially since Ed later leads two more friends in Amos’ direction, likely for the same type of contract. It was an incongruous choice, in my opinion, and didn’t quite agree with all of the other things Ed claims to have done.

Of course, they all seem perfectly happy later on, so I suppose it worked out. As one might expect, the stories turn out not to be as fantastic as Will had always believed. There’s a healthy does of reality in there among the witches with magic eyes and cars in trees. Which Will discovers as he digs into his father’s past with the help of friends and documents stored in his father’s office. The ending of the movie is a wonderful meeting of the two parts that made up the rest of the movie. The fantastic becomes reality and the reality is more fantastic than expected. Of course Will reconciles with his father, and as a librarian (and one focused on children’s literature) I am very much in favor of the power of a good story. Good stories tell us wonderful things and interesting things and make the whole world larger.

The end of the movie made me cry, of course. Way back in the beginning of the movie Ed tells a story of how he found out when and where he was going to die. But we never see it. It’s left to us to decide whether this bit of story was fact or fiction. And I like that. I like that regardless of what we’re shown to be true, there are things unresolved and unexplained. Who knows what other bits and pieces there were and is it that important? According to the movie it isn’t. And yes, the whole point of Will and his father and the stories being more telling about Ed than Will thought they were? That’s kind of an obvious point. But it’s told so well, through lovely writing and fantastic performances and beautiful cinematography. It’s a good story made into a great story.

June 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 398 – The Natural

The Natural – April 2nd, 2011

I’m going to say this up front so there’s no beating around the bush: I don’t enjoy baseball as a game. I find it interesting as a cultural phenomenon, but well, I don’t watch it and I haven’t ever really felt a desire to. It’s slow and I don’t find it particularly engrossing, the same way other people would probably find my favorite video games boring. Different tastes for different folks. So when I watch a movie that has baseball as its foundation, well, it’s got to have something to draw me in other than the game. Oddly enough, a few months back Andy (who also does not watch baseball or particularly enjoy it) decided we should get some baseball movies. So we got this, which I had never seen, and three others that I had. I could have dealt without this one.

I know, I’m a horrible person for saying so. I mean, this is a classic, right? The score is iconic, as are more than a few shots and moments in the movie. It’s Robert Redford and Barry Levinson! How can I not be entranced by this movie! But I’m not. It’s not bad. I didn’t dislike it. But it just didn’t capture me. Even looking at it from an allegorical perspective, pulling in meaning from the talk about Homer and making connections with mythology as well as Arthurian legend didn’t really do it for me. I mean, I like those things, but the allegory here is using baseball as its vehicle. The appeal of allegory is to present one story in the guise of another. What would be the point if the guise wasn’t as interesting as the original? It’s not like we’re talking religious stories that need to be communicated in a time of censorship here.

It’s a bit of a blunt instrument, to be honest. Set in 1939, it’s the story of the meteoric rise of a baseball player, Roy Hobbs. We get a little backstory, seeing how he grew up being taught how to play by his father. We watch him make his own bat. We see him head to the city to play ball and meet up with a mysterious woman who later shoots him for no reason that the movie sees fit to explain (it’s hinted that she was responsible for a string of athlete shootings but the movie doesn’t bother to elaborate). And then we pick back up with him in his 30s, over the hill and starting out as a rookie with the down-on-their-luck Knights. Everyone thinks he’s just a benchwarmer, sent in to ruin the team even more thanks to some shady dealings with the majority shareholder, the sinister Judge. But of course he’s not. He’s amazing. He’s downright magical.

The rest of the movie plays out fairly predictably. I won’t say that’s a bad thing, because it’s using some well known tropes and that just means it’s been put together by people who know how to build a story. But it does mean that I felt very little in the way of tension. As soon as Roy meets femme fatale Memo? I knew he’d start striking out. As soon as his old sweetheart, Iris, showed up to give him moral support from the stands? I knew he’d start doing better. When she said she had a son? Come on. Did anyone need a reveal there? From the moment we meet the Judge in his darkened room it’s a sure thing that someone’s going to either try and take Roy out (again) or get him to throw a game. This is not a movie full of unexpected twists and turns. It tells you everything that’s going on, plain as day.

Fortunately, it’s well acted and well shot. Visually, it’s a lovely movie. And I did enjoy Robert Redford’s performance. He gets the vast majority of screen time. I wish I could say more about the women in the movie, but they’re all fairly one-dimensional, which I found thoroughly disappointing. I would have liked a little more than a villain in black, a sweetheart in white and a temptress who flips back and forth and I would have liked some more well-developed parts for Barbara Hershey, Glenn Close and Kim Basinger. I also would have liked things to move a little faster. As it is, the movie plays out much in the way I’ve always seen baseball itself. A whole lot of standing around, punctuated by some actual playing every so often. It felt like this movie took hours and hours and hours to play out. Sure, there were moments I enjoyed and I appreciated the cinematography and the acting and definitely the score. But overall it just didn’t speak to me.

April 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 373 – The Legend of Billie Jean

The Legend of Billie Jean – March 8th, 2011

We were going to watch Planet Terror tonight, since we watched the excruciatingly horrible Death Proof last night, but then today I thought perhaps we should pick something else. What with it being International Women’s Day and all, it seemed like watching something so gratuitous would be a bad plan. So I thought and thought and thought and then came up with this. Because this is a movie that sticks out in my mind as being about women resolutely not being taken advantage of, despite the best attempts of the men around them.

The plot follows Billie Jean and her brother, Binx, two kids from the trailer park in Corpus Christi, Texas, and how Billie Jean becomes a legendary figure among the youth of the area (and it’s implied the rest of the country followed suit). It’s an outrageous plot in many ways, but sadly believable in others, but then, that’s a legend for you. It’s in the title, after all. Binx has this scooter, you see, and he loves it. But some bullies steal it and trash it and then beat Binx up when he tries to get it back. Billie Jean goes to the ring-leader’s father, Mr. Pyatt, and presents him with a bill for the damages to the bike and he tries to force her to give him sexual favors in return for the money. Binx shoots him by accident (Pyatt tells him the gun isn’t loaded) and soon the two siblings are on the run along with their friends, Ophelia (who has a car) and Putter. The case gets publicized and starts to build in the media and by the end of the movie there are underground dens of young women cutting all their hair off like Billie Jean did and rallying around her. They believe in her and in what she stands for. She’s approached to help other kids. She’s a symbol for something she never intended and meanwhile Mr. Pyatt is profiting off her notoriety, selling t-shirts, posters and other crap with her name and face on it all, all the while claiming he never did anything wrong and she’s a menace to society.

Of course, the detective handling the case, Detective Ringwald, figures it out as soon as he sees Billie Jean’s picture and hears whose father it was who got shot. He knows it didn’t go down like Pyatt claims and he knows Billie Jean didn’t start it. And he says it right at the start: “I blew this one.” Because before she went to Mr. Pyatt, Billie Jean went to the police. The way she thought she was supposed to. And Ringwald sent her away, telling her it was probably a prank. The boys were probably just trying to get her attention. The bike would be back in no time, no big deal. And to his credit, while Ringwald did indeed blow it at the start, he’s firmly on Billie Jean’s side through the rest of the movie. He follows all the procedures he needs to follow as she’s on the run and apparently has a hostage (a young man named Lloyd who joined them voluntarily, helped them make tapes to send to the media and whose father is running for Attorney General), but he tries his best to keep things from escalating. To find out what really happened. To do what’s right. And then there’s a super dramatic ending, with the confrontation we’ve all been waiting for, and then suddenly everything’s up in flames and it’s clearly a reference to Saint Joan, which is a little ambitious for an 80s flick like this but I don’t care.

Now, I won’t deny that this movie is cheese. I can’t claim it’s brilliantly written or stunningly filmed. It’s dated and stilted and some of the acting is questionable at best. But it stands out for me as distinctly pro-woman for several reasons. One, while Billie Jean becomes a media celebrity, the attention she gets is for her actions and her words, not her body. The only person focused on her body as a sexual object is Mr. Pyatt, and he’s unquestionably the villain here. Two, young women all over the place are moved by Billie Jean and what she’s done and said. They emulate her not because she’s pretty or sexy or dating someone hot. They do it because she’s strong and speaking up for herself and refusing to be put in the sex object role. And three, how many other actiony movies like this can you think of that celebrate a character getting her first period? I can’t think of any. This isn’t a movie marketed as a “chick flick”. It’s about strong women being awesome and it includes a statement about menarche. It takes a special kind of movie to include that alongside chase scenes and shootouts.

This movie informed my teen years. Back when I was in middle school and high school I was as nocturnal as I could get. I stayed up late and watched movies. And this was one I would catch every so often and I loved it. I loved it passionately. Because it’s not a movie about vengeance. Sure, there’s some vengeance in it, but that’s not the point. The point is what Billie Jean says: “What’s fair is fair.” She just wants the bullies who stole her brother’s bike and trashed it and beat him up to pay for the damage. And she wants to be paid back without having to give sexual favors to the jackass’s father. One would think that wasn’t too much to ask, you know? But it is, and when I was fourteen years old, watching this, I knew in my soul that it was too much to ask for some people in some places. Too many people in too many places. And I wanted to believe that it was possible that someone could stand up like Billie Jean and inspire people all over the place to stand with her. I wanted to believe that people would know it was right that bullying was wrong and coercion was wrong and it could start a movement. I still want to believe it.

What did this movie teach me? That boys who treated you like dirt were scum, regardless of what people said about it meaning they liked you. That it didn’t matter what your social status was, no one was allowed to try and buy or take your body without your consent. That a media blitz gets attention but rolls out of control really fast. That you can act to keep from being taken advantage of, but acting sometimes gets you in trouble too. That while there are jackasses out there and plenty of them, there are also people who aren’t jackasses. That lots of people will pile on a bandwagon without understanding the original purpose. That other people will understand and stand up for a cause. Sure, it’s the bluntest of blunt instruments, but I like the mark it made on me.

March 8, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 256 – Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump – November 11th, 2010

I am well aware that this movie is carefully calculated to poke just the right emotional buttons for maximum audience response. It was Oscar-bait when it came out and there are times when I am as ashamed of liking it as I am ashamed of liking last night’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (though for vastly different reasons, of course, as this movie does not have Sean Connery, Stuart Townsend or Peta Wilson in it). I think part of it is that it’s so blatant in its manipulation. It feels like it shouldn’t be as good as it is since it’s so heavy handed. Like the heavy-handedness should make me cringe in distaste. And it doesn’t. I am fully aware of it through the entire movie and I find myself not caring.

Of course, I do have a couple of other issues with the movie. It would be nice if the major female characters didn’t both get horribly sick and die. And I can’t help but find the idealization of Forrest’s naivete to be a little problematic and often exploitative. It’s not that Forrest has incredible experiences or does amazing things or has great luck. It’s that he’s portrayed as bumbling into these things and while he is certainly a sympathetic character – the movie wouldn’t work if he wasn’t – his naivete is certainly played for laughs. And you’re meant to be laughing at him, not with him. Which makes me vaguely uncomfortable. Early on in the movie Forrest’s mother tells him that he’s no different from anyone else and not to ever let anyone tell him otherwise. Good advice! And she is immensely supportive of him through her entire life, which I like. But then we are supposed to laugh when Forrest doesn’t know to stop running after reaching the end zone in a football game. We are supposed to laugh when he thinks taking “walks” in Vietnam is fun. So I’m conflicted. Fortunately, Forrest does have a comeback for his detractors. He knows how people see him and what they call him and he doesn’t like it. So we’re sort of chastised for our laughter too. And also? Forrest is a truly good person. That helps.

This movie is really a history lesson, told through the point of view of someone unconcerned with politics, both interpersonal and governmental. So everything he observes he sees from a very frank perspective. Is it a good thing or a bad thing? How does it affect him and the people he cares about? Sure, it’s a somewhat egocentric view of the world, but it works for him and ultimately it works for some of his friends. He loses his friend Bubba in Vietnam, but he does keep his Lieutenant, Dan, long term. He loses Jenny permanently near the end, but gains Forrest Jr. And the way the movie portrays its characters, the ones who have a more jaded point of view have a harder time of it than those who are more innocent. Yes, Bubba dies, but he was happy until he did. Jenny and Dan, on the other hand, are both miserable for a long portion of the movie, only becoming happy when they embrace Forrest and his way of looking at things. Which is one of those things I know would make me roll my eyes in most other movies but I just sigh and accept it here. The world Forrest inhabits is one where yes, his way is best.

Of course, the whole thing has a sort of tall tale feel to it. Once upon a time, there was a man named Forrest, and he met three presidents and fought in a war and was a championship ping pong player and ran across the United States a few times and caught shrimp and had amazing adventures! It’s even alluded to by one of the strangers he recounts his story to at the bus stop that is the platform for the rest of the movie. This is a whopper of a tale. Maybe that’s why I can just accept it. It’s not meant to be a truly realistic version of history. It’s not meant to be accurate. It’s meant to be a story of an unexpected and extraordinary life, which is what the best tall tales are.

When this movie came out, I remember there being a lot of talk about the effects used to insert Forrest into the various historical footage of the events he’s present for. School integration in Alabama, meeting presidents, etc. And thus I think I built it up in my mind to take up a large part of the movie, and it doesn’t. It’s kind of funny now to see it and think how big a deal was made of it when it’s actually a rather small portion of the film. I think what’s much better about setting the tone and feel of the various historical periods is the soundtrack and, to a slightly lesser extent, the scenes of Jenny’s life as she tries to find herself. Jenny’s wardrobe helps a lot, as do the events she’s present for, which are often not as major as Forrest’s, but are far more common experiences for people living at those times. Which also helps the movie overall. It’s a tall tale, but one that puts you firmly where it wants you, emotionally and temporarily. Add in impressive performances from Tom Hanks, Robin Wright and Gary Sinise and I can’t help but let the movie do whatever the hell it wants.

November 11, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment