Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Maggie's December 31 - January 5 Films

A new feature of this blog will be staff reviews of the films we rent from Gen X this year. Considering how wide our range of interests is, this should be loads of fun for you, the readers!

I started the New Year with a few bangs and a few whimpers:

#1. Manufactured Landscapes

This 2007 documentary doesn't quite live up to that label, and I'm glad of it. The subject of this film is the quiet, haunting life's work of photographer Edward Burtynsky, who decades ago began a quest in Canada that has since led him all over the world, photographing and filming the "human landscapes" we have created in the course of our expansion, yet which exist so far removed from day-to-day North American life. The opening shot of this film, a long, uncut tracking of a Chinese factory, is a perfect introduction to the subject: The shot, past assembly line after assembly line, lasts a full eight minutes, because yes, the factory is that big. In the course of this film we see towns dedicated to scavenging e-waste, quarries cut to extraordinary shapes by our decades of use, freighter graveyards in the middle of parched Bangledeshi deserts, the consequences of smelting run-off, and more. Much more. Some reviewers demand a greater argument to this piece, an overarching lesson about our destruction of the natural world, but that's not exactly Burtynsky's angle. He just thinks we should all be very aware of what our world looks like -- what its dominant landscapes really are. What we do with that information is up to us.

#2. Sophie's Choice

Late December, I watched and thoroughly enjoyed Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29, a documentary about the kind of real-life football extravaganza summer blockbusters struggle biannually to recreate with anywhere near as much tension. This 1968 match-up had very well-connected teams: Tommy Lee Jones was one player, a roommate of George Bush Sr. was another, and yet another dated Meryl Streep. It was after this last, and others on the team, commented on how quiet Streep had been whenever they'd gone out that I had a hankering to watch early Streep in action. Enter, then, Sophie's Choice, which for her linguistic dexterity alone guaranteed her a place among the acting stars. The story of a young, Southern, would-be novelist (Peter MacNicol, as "Stingo") moving to New York and finding himself embroiled in the ill-fated love story of Sophie Zawistowski (Meryl Streep) and Nathan Landau (Keven Kline), Sophie's Choice has the kind of narrative dexterity most other "issues" films could only ever dream of. Truly, this film runs the gamut of possible twists and turns in the protagonists' story arcs, but with such delicacy, such nuance, that when key characters emerge only halfway through the film, or story threads are dropped early only to be picked up far later in, it works. I don't know how, but this film is tough as nails: it can, and does, take just about anything thrown at it. Yes, for goodness sake, watch this film.

#3. The Great Debaters

I wish I didn't have a sneaking suspicion why The Great Debaters didn't do as well as it should have done in theatres; I wish my gut didn't tell me the "race theme" just wasn't "in" enough that year -- not like the crowd-pleasing, self-serving The Blind Side is now. Because the former, a 2007 film featuring such stars as Denzel Washington (also the director) and Forrest Whitaker, yet prioritizing the lesser-known Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, and Denzel Whitaker as the based-on-a-true-story debate team from a lesser known black college in 1935 that took on Harvard and won, is incredible. The acting is remarkable, the script is strong, and yes, though the horrific face of racism may be "oh so cliche" to desensitized viewing audiences, the breadth and nuance with which racism's intersections in daily Texas life were evinced in this film should necessarily tear at you. This may be an underdog film. This may be a film about a teacher who inspires. This may even be a film about -- shock! -- racism. But for all the wear and tear these genres have all received from Hollywood hits in the past decade, this one is the worthy amalgam of all three.

#4. Les Boys & #5. Les Boys II

Reviews for these two films will come in due course in my VOYAGE THROUGH THE STACKS.

#6. Julie & Julia

I have it on good authority that Meryl Streep is pitch-perfect in her portrayal of Julia Childs, the American icon who revolutionized North American understanding of French cuisine. I have to say, if this is true, Julia Childs sounds like she would have been absolutely intolerable at doses larger than her 30-minute-a-day TV spots. She is almost maddening to watch over the course of a full hour and a half. And the "Julie" of this film is only marginally better: a contemporary woman working a miserable desk job, who finds salvation in a year-long blogging project committed to learning to cook by completing every recipe in Julia Childs' famous French cookbook, Julie's self-absorption still somehow seems over-the-top. These intersected stories are both based on real life (specifically, a book by the same name, about Julie's blogging project), but as savoury as a film about food could (and should!) have been, I found this one decidedly lacking in conflict I felt any emotion about whatsoever. I hate to say it, but I'd even recommend No Reservations over this piece.

#7. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

For my birthday, I treated myself to a few favourite actors, not the least of which being a very young Jimmy Stewart. When a U.S. senator pulls a rotten one over his fellow senate members by dying on the eve of a very important graft bill, officials are torn over who would make the best replacement putz. The governor, bullied by the political puppet-master Jim Taylor, but even more so by his assertive children, gives the nomination to young Jefferson Smith, Boy Ranger leader, American hero, and all-around idealist. And he might have stayed that way a bit longer, until it was too late for him to do anything with his time in office, if secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) didn't ultimately fall for his idealism and reveal, in turn, how he'd been had by his long-time idol, Senator Joe Paine. You don't have to be American to love this story about a man who fights for justice in the face of immense political corruption: It's timeless. It's classic. It's Jimmy Stewart. Need I say more?

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