Category Archives: Movies

Funny Face (1957)

Funny Face dvdAll musicals exist in a world of fantasy, but maybe none more so than Stanley Donen’s 1957 film Funny Face. With no flying monkeys, talking killer plants, or even an extravagant Broadway fantasy (as seen in Donen’s crowning achievement Singin’ in the Rain), Funny Face surpasses them all in implausibility with the implication that there is anything “funny” about Audrey Hepburn’s face. Hepburn plays a shy but intellectual bookstore employee, whose whole world turns upside down when a photographer (played by Fred Astaire) points out the one thing that everyone else in the film seems to be blind to – the crazy notion that Audrey Hepburn could be a model!

Few plots have made less sense, but fortunately the film has enough charm and style to offer, that it’s easy to overlook such a ludicrous scenario. However, equally ridiculous is the romance between Astaire and Hepburn. Most films would fail with such an utter lack of chemistry (and with its creepy connotations, considering the thirty year age difference), but most films don’t have Hepburn and Astaire singing and dancing all throughout Paris, either.

Where the film really shines, though, is in Donen’s superb direction. He gracefully moves the camera around the gorgeous sets and refrains from using cuts to allow his actors show off their craft. The musical numbers are lively, exuberant, and downright charming. The titular “Funny Face” performance by Astaire is a standout, as he dances under the lights of a photo lab, drenched in the warm red hues. “Bonjour Paris!” finds the film at its most playful, as our leads arrive in the City of Love and can’t help but actually sing to the city itself. Hepburn does all her own singing (unlike her most notable musical hit in My Fair Lady, where Marni Nixon dubbed her vocals), which is not always on-key, but never not adorable. She does get to impress in a scene where she breaks out into an impromptu beatnik dance in the middle of a French café because why not?

Funny Face is a prime example of style over substance, but who needs substance when the style is so intoxicating? Hepburn, Astaire, and Donen work together to create a musical that may be utterly meaningless, but ends up all the more enjoyable because of it. You can check out this underrated Hepburn classic here.

Greatest. Movie. Ever?

andreiThere are lists beyond count of the Greatest Movies Ever Made. Some lists are short, some endless, and all are subjective. Most contain the usual gang of suspects. So my ears perked up when I ran across a reference to a 1966 Russian movie named Andrei Rublev, a movie I was unfamiliar with. It was noted that many directors think it’s the Greatest Movie Ever Made.

 

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Christ the Redeemer, 1410

So I borrowed it, and with some hesitation popped it into the player. It’s in Russian, filmed in black and white and is 208 minutes long. Also, it’s sized so that it runs across your screen in a band—correct from the film perspective, but not so easy to watch in your living room. Outside, the sky was blue and the clouds fluffy. I thought of my petunias, which were getting scraggly, and needed cutting back. I thought of the lettuce in the crisper that needed rinsing. But, sucking it up, I sat down and started to watch. I have to say, within moments, I was hooked. Andrei Rublev was a medieval icon painter (1360-1430) who was so influential that his painting methods became church law in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Rublev is shown journeying through a tumultuous Russia, though most of the time there is focus on a series of stories, including the sack of the city of Vladimir by the Tatars.

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The Holy Trinity, 1410

There are many odd things about this movie, one of which is you don’t see all that much of Rublev or his icons  (until the very end), but somehow it all makes sense—this is a dream world. It’s been pointed out that Andrei Rublev shows a series of punishments being meted out, and since Tarkovsky was born and raised in Stalinist Russia, it makes sense that he’s evoking the cruelty and capriciousness of life under a totalitarian dictator. For me, the most powerful story was that of a young boy who had claimed to be able to forge a gigantic copper bell. We see him getting more and more nervous, and he knows that the Grand Prince who commissioned the bell will behead him if the bell doesn’t ring. It’s excruciating, as it must have been to live under Stalin.

Andrei Tarkovsky

Andrei Tarkovsky

Tarkovsky’s main strength is showing us visions, and as screen after  screen of black and white images appear and vanish like bubbles in a stream, it made me think if he hadn’t been a filmmaker he would have been a painter. There are scenes that are like dreams, for instance when Rublev comes across some villagers celebrating Midsummer night by running naked down to a river with torches (a perilous sounding activity). This is one of the many scenes that got him in trouble with the authorities.

Nativity of Jesus, 1405

Nativity of Jesus, 1405

Should you watch it? Since it really is one of the greatest movies ever made–a tour de force of story telling, poetry and cinematography–sure. But. There are a number of scenes of extreme cruelty, and I found myself shaken by them. Maybe, though, this is what artists should do—shake us up. In an interview included on the DVD, Tarkovsky notes that if the world were perfect it wouldn’t need artists. And most of the movie is extraordinarily beautiful, a world of mist, flame and smoke. It’s a movie you watch knowing that it will change you, so it’s up to you.

Mr. Turner

turMr. Turner is the story of the last 25 years of the life of British artist J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), an English Romanticist landscape painter and watercolorist. His dramatic landscapes and color-washed seascapes prefigured Impressionism and the abstract art of the twentieth century. One of his paintings, The Fighting Temeraire, is considered one of the the greatest paintings in Western art. He also invented modern watercolor techniques. Turner was so innovative that he remains influential today.

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The Fighting Temeraire, 1839

Turner (played by Timothy Spall) himself was a shambling warthog of a man, notorious among his friends for his secretiveness, brusqueness, and lack of hygiene. To me, though, there is something modern and self invented about him—he marketed himself and built his own showroom, and made appearances that were a bit like modern performance art.

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The Norham Castle Sunrise, 1845

The late Georgian world depicted in Mr. Turner has been created with infinite attention to detail, and if you like the sensation of being transported back in time, you will enjoy the movie. The director, Mike Leigh, also created Topsy Turvy, a biopic about Gilbert and Sullivan, and there is a similar, almost hyperreal sense of the past in that movie.

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Rockets and Blue Lights, 1840

There have been a number of criticisms of this movie–one is that “nothing happens,” but it’s a character study, not an action flick. Then there is Turner himself, who at one point is shown abusing his servant, Hannah Danby (played by Dorothy Atkinson). He was complex, no doubt about it, and one of the themes of the movie is the strange form that genius may take. In the last ten years of his life, he lived a double life, living part-time with a former landlady named Mrs. Booth. I think Mrs. Booth, played with a luminous sweetness by Marion Bailey, saw the good in Turner, and the magic of this movie is that we are able to, as well.

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The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 1835

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Borgen

borgen1When a friend suggested that I watch a series called Borgen, which is about Danish politics, I hesitated. The phrase “Danish politics” seemed synonymous with “snore fest.” But I dutifully checked out Season 1. It sat gathering dust for a week before I popped it in the player. It’s in Danish with subtitles, and I groaned. Not Danish with subtitles. But I kept watching, and was soon sucked down into a vortex, where I discovered that it’s a great, great, binge-worthy series, one of the best. It’s the story of Birgitte Nyborg, a young female Danish politician who, though some of the twists and turns of the complex Danish parliamentary system, unexpectedly becomes the Prime Minister. Nyborg is liberal and idealistic and has a wonderful husband and two sweet children. Can she remain idealistic in the pressure cooker of politics? As a woman, can her family life have any semblance of normalcy? These are some of the obvious things that Borgen is about, but at its heart, it’s an unsparing lens into the Machiavellian nature of politics itself. Nyborg is confronted with intransigent power players in government and industry who would bring the whole world down about our ears rather than compromise. If you’ve ever looked at our gridlocked government and wondered what the problem is, watch Borgen. It’s instructive.

Pilou Asbaek as Kasper Juul

Pilou Asbaek as Kasper Juul

On the entertainment level, the acting is fantastic, and the story hurtles along. Actress Sidse Babett Knudsen plays Birgitte Nyborg, and actor Pilou Asbaek  plays her troubled spin doctor Kasper Juul. Juul is my favorite character—he’s an ambitious young man with a troubled past, and his questioning eyes make me think of another famous Dane, Hamlet.

Christiansborg Palace

Christiansborg Palace

The word “Borgen,” by the way, is the nickname of Christiansborg Palace, which houses all three of Denmark’s branches of government: the Parliament, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Supreme Court.

Interestingly, Borgen echoes real life, as the current Prime Minister of Denmark is Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who took office in 2011. She is the first woman to hold this post.

Funny Movies

February. Grey. Snow. Ice. Blah. Seems like a good time for some funny movies! Here are my picks for some of the funniest of the funny—and, I know, I know, there are a jillion missing. But these are my old reliables. My definition of a funny movie is one that gets funnier every time you watch it, and these fill the bill!

By the way, humor is subjective, and I will admit to laughing at Borat and Bad Santa, two movies in certifiably bad taste. Also, I have yet to crack a smile while watching a Marx Brothers movie, which I know is totally abnormal. Still, here are my faves!

Some Like it Hot

Two unemployed musicians accidentally witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and flee to Miami disguised as female musicians in an all-girl band, which includes ukelele player Sugar “Kane” Kowalczyk, played by Marilyn Monroe. Shenanigans ensue.

Note: In 2000, the American Film Institute listed Some Like It Hot as the greatest American comedy film of all time.

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Tony Curtis as “Josephine” and Jack Lemmon as “Daphne.”

The Big Lebowski

The Dude Abides. A lazy, unemployed Southern Californian stoner who loves bowling gets mistaken for a millionaire with the same name. He’s beaten up by men looking for money from the rich man’s wife and gets drawn into the kidnapping of the millionaire’s wife. Note: The plot is immaterial: it’s all about The Dude (Jeff Bridges, on the left below).

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Best in Show

A comic look at dog show participants (and the pooches who love them).

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The winner!

Young Frankenstein

Summoned by a will to his late grandfather’s castle in Transylvania, young Dr. Frankenstein soon discovers the scientist’s step-by-step manual explaining how to bring a corpse to life. Then things get a little silly. A little?

Cast of Young Frankenstein.

Cast of Young Frankenstein.

Airplane

An airplane crew becomes ill after a bad fish meal. Surely, the only person capable of landing the plane can’t be an ex-pilot afraid to fly. Yes, but don’t call him Shirley!

airplane

Blazing Saddles

A spoof of every western film cliche in which a black man is appointed sheriff of a frontier town.

mongo

The immortal Mongo.

Ghostbusters

Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis are three eccentric parapsychologists in New York City who start a ghost-catching business. They soon discover they have more business than they can handle.

Who you gonna' call?

Who you gonna’ call?

 

You might want to check out this list of scientifically-proven to be the funniest films, rated by laughs per minute! The winner is Airplane, clocking in at three laughs per minute. Only three?

And here’s a new and  comprehensive list of the 100 best comedy movies, chosen by an impressive list of film insiders. Should keep us going through March, at least!

 

 

Space. The Final Frontier

gravityThe 2013 movie Gravity is a space thriller, and one of the best sci fi movies I’ve seen. It stars Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone, and George Clooney as Matt Kowalski, a veteran astronaut commanding his final mission. They are fixing the Hubble Telescope when space debris hurtles through and destroys their ship; they are left marooned in space, tumbling helplessly above the luminous Earth. From then on, it’s one thrill and chill after another. Sandra Bullock’s performance as Dr. Ryan surprised me—there was delicacy and vulnerability to her character, along with a gritty determination. Clooney was a bit too folksy for my tastes, but since astronauts do seem to be super cool and collected, his character rang true. The visual effects, which comprise 80 of the 91 minutes of the film, are totally amazing, as is the Academy Award-winning electronic score, which ratchets up the tension without mercy.

In Gravity, as I watched one of the space vehicles breaking up and burning as it fell to the Earth, I couldn’t help but think of the mythological Icarus, who with human arrogance, dared to fly too close to the sun.

2001As I watched their ship being smashed to smithereens, I couldn’t help but think of the serene opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which space was an accommodating blank slate for our dreams. The space station orbits the earth to the tune of The Blue Danube, and we have hauled our mundane world along with us. The outer space of Gravity is another thing entirely—a lethal nothingness, totally unforgiving to human beings.

martianIf you enjoy Gravity, consider reading The Martian by Andy Weir.  Astronaut Mark Watney is left marooned on Mars,  like a Martian Robinson Crusoe,  after a cyclonic sand storm. In a situation that would drive most of us insane, Watney cheerfully and resourcefully solves problem after problem in order to survive. But will it be enough? In some ways, the fascination of this book for me was following Watney’s thought processes as he faces catastrophe. The lesson seems to be that survivors don’t give up easily.

sands-of-mars-01Reading The Martian made me think of the first science fiction novel I ever read, which was The Sands of Mars, by Arthur C. Clarke. His Mars is an altogether kinder and gentler place for humans, and is a bit of a relief after reading of the ferocious Mars of The Martian. Clarke proposed a way for Mars to become habitable by transforming  its moon Phobos into a second sun. The science in The Sands of Mars is dated, but it remains an enjoyable read.

mars1If you enjoy The Sands of Mars, consider checking out Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, Blue Mars, Green Mars trilogy.  Chronicling the colonization of Mars in the year 2026, Robinson presents a startlingly realistic vision of what life on Mars could really be like. Mars becomes a political battleground for those who wish to leave Mars as it is, and those who wish to transform and exploit it.

All the above books and movies present different scenarios for whether man will be able to explore the planets and stars, or not. Space radiation and the possible inability of our bodies to stand up under the rigors of zero G gravity indicate that it will be tough going, though maybe it will be our own fragile psychology that will make the journey impossible.

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Touching the Wild: Living with the Mule Deer of Deadman Gulch

hutto1A few minutes into watching the documentary “Touching the Wild: Living with the Mule Deer of Deadman Gulch,” the story of wildlife researcher Joe Hutto and his study of mule deer, I became aware that I was meeting an extraordinary person.

Joe, who lives on a ranch near the Wind River Mountains, of Wyoming, had dedicated himself to patiently earning the trust of the deer, and after two years the deer finally began to respond. Once he won full acceptance from their matriarch, a doe he called Raggedy Anne, he could move among the individuals in the herd: He had become part of the family. He was to spend the next years of his life with the deer, who are keenly intelligent animals.

muleThe mule deer live in families, and each deer has its own personality. There are family bonds, and the deer will stay with and mourn for a dying member. The deer themselves are, well, dear. With big soft ears and gentle, intelligent faces, it’s hard not to fall in love with them. Joe guards against anthropomorphizing the animals, but notes their “human” qualities, and wonders if loyalty, love, and the ability to grieve and mourn aren’t actually common to many animals, and aren’t really solely human at all.

The hardest scenes in the documentary are taken during hunting season, when hunters  “hunt the region hard.” Joe has hunted all his life, but with mule deer populations falling, feels that they should be protected. When a hunter kills a mule deer Hutto has known since the deer was a fawn, named Buck, he asked Hutto how old the deer might be. Hutto responded, “I know exactly how old he is. I’ve known him since he was a speckled fawn. I have all his shed antlers.”

Hutto feels that a hunter should know what he is hunting. Instead he sees hunters with high-powered rifles and high tech devices shooting from great distances, never truly entering into a contest with their prey. The moment when old Buck is loaded into a pickup truck like a sack of potatoes is a really hard one to watch.

touchingAfter watching this documentary, you may wish to read the companion book to it, also called Touching the Wild.

Hutto is the author of Illumination in the Flatwoods, which was made into the celebrated PBS Nature documentary, My Life as a Turkey, chronicling his exhaustive study of wild turkeys. He is also the author of The Light in High Places, an account of living alone in the high country of Wyoming observing the life of the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

Tim’s Vermeer

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The Music Lesson

The documentary Tim’s Vermeer is the story of Texas inventor Tim Jenison’s obsessive quest to recreate a Vermeer. Vermeer, a seventeenth-century Dutch painter, is often mentioned as one of the greatest of all artists, with his paintings of domestic life glowing with an inner light. They are also startlingly realistic—some would say photorealistic.

Jenison believes that
Vermeer used a device called a camera obscura, an optical device that projects an image of its surroundings on a screen. The image is projected upside down, and Jenison believes that Vermeer used a mirror to correct this.

camera obscura

camera obscura

verneer5Tim’s Vermeer is as much the story of Tim, as it is of Vermeer. His nature is obsessive, and the viewer is repeatedly astonished to see the lengths Tim will go to accurately reproduce a Vermeer called “The Music Lesson.” As well as using a camera obscura, he recreates the setting, including making a virginal, the keyboard instrument shown in the painting. He makes his own lens to seventeenth-century specifications, and grinds his own pigments for paint.

secretknowledge He also traveled to Delft, Holland, where Vermeer painted, and to Yorkshire to meet artist (and Vermeer fan) David Hockney, and to Buckingham Palace to see the Queen’s Vermeer. Hockney had written his own book on the use of optical devices by artists, called Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters.

vermeer2Then we watch Jenison, who labors for hour after hour, reproducing each brushstroke as he re-creates the Vermeer. He completed the painting in six months, and brought it to David Hockney to see. Is Tim’s Vermeer as good as Vermeer’s Vermeer? It’s really not clear that Jenison’s painting is that good—we don’t get a close enough look. And there is a telling moment when Jenison unveils the painting before Hockney, who remains silent, and then comments on the realistic carpet.

My guess is that Vermeer did use such a device, or something similar, but that his artist’s eye came into play, as well, and this explains Hockney’s silence—perhaps Jenison’s painting has everything but that mysterious something that is the soul of the artist.

girlYou might want to watch the movie Girl with Pearl Earring after seeing this. You get to see some of the process by which Vermeer painted, including the grinding of his paints, though there is no sign of a camera obscura.

 

 

 

Flicks for Fabulous Fashionistas

For the fashionistas among us, here are four documentaries about fashion greats Halston, Diana Vreeland, Carine Roitfeld and Yves Saint Laurent to slurp up while indolently leafing through the latest Vogue and painting your toenails.

vreeThe first is Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel 2012 (746.92 DIA). Diana (pronounced dee-ahna) worked as editor-in-chief at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, singlehandedly bringing fashion into the modern world and out of the hands of a privileged, stuffy elite. She was known for her eccentric, but amusing, pronouncements, such as “Why don’t you wash your blond child’s hair in dead champagne, as they do in France?” and “Why don’t you wear violet velvet mittens with everything?” Really, why not? She discovered major models such as Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton and the fabulous Veruschka. She was also known for her tremendous sense of personal style—her lacquered hair, her rouge, even for polishing the bottoms of her high heels every day.

vree1Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston 2010 (746.92 ULT), was, for me, the most enjoyable of these documentaries. Halston began as a milliner and created the famous pill box hat worn by Jackie Kennedy. He went on to revolutionize women’s clothing, simplifying and bringing fashion into the future. His ultrasuede shirt dress became an instant classic. He had a coterie of women followers, including Elizabeth Taylor, Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli, and they often partied the night away at Studio 54.

The seventies, with its avocado refrigerators and shag carpets, is sometimes remembered as an era of nightmare design, but seeing Ultrasuede reminds us of that era’s elegance. By the early eighties, though, fashion times had changed, and his empire crumbled and then collapsed. The party was over.

madcMademoiselle C 2014 (746.92 MAD) is about Carine Roitfeld, the least known of this group, at least to me. Mademoiselle C is for the hard-core fashionista, as it’s a  detailed documentary about Carine as she starts up her fashion book/magazine, called CR Fashion Book, in 2012. She doesn’t come across as warm and fuzzy, but if you are interested in the creative process behind magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s, it’s enlightening, and she does hobnob with fashion luminaries such as Karl Lagerfeld. Her hair, though, remains a mystery (meow!).

lamourL’Amour Fou  2011 (746.92 AMO) details the life of Yves Saint Laurent and his business partner and lover Pierre Berge. There are wonderful vintage clips of fashion shows, along with glimpses into their fabulously decorated homes. After Saint Laurent’s death in 2008, these belongings were sold in an auction at Christie’s for $483.8 million.

In some ways, this documentary is a meditation on having it all–is it ever enough? Saint Laurent suffered from depression, and the ups and downs of the creative process in the hot house atmosphere of the Paris fashion world ultimately destroyed him.

You might also be interested in the documentary September Issue 2009 (746.92 SEP) which details the creation of a September issue of Vogue magazine, always the biggest of the year.

 

Babette’s Feast

babette1I have several favorite movies: one is The Big Lebowski, which never fails to make me laugh until I snort, and the other is Babette’s Feast, which usually makes me laugh and cry. Babette’s Feast (1987) was unavailable as a DVD for a long time, but was just re-released, packaged with documentary footage and interviews. Apparently, I’m not the only one who loves this movie. I’ve probably watched it ten times, and have often reflected on just what makes it so wonderful.

babette4Well, first, there’s the story. It’s based on a short story by Isak Dinesen, who was a master storyteller. In Babette’s Feast, she tells of a master chef who must escape Paris during a revolution. Her husband and son have been killed, and on the recommendation of a friend, she seeks refuge with a pair of spinsters living on a remote coast of Denmark. The sisters are the daughters of a charismatic Lutheran minister who founded his own Christian sect. Babette begs them to take her on as a cook and housekeeper, and soon they are enjoying her good food. They have no idea that she had been the chef of the renowned Cafe Anglais, in Paris.

The years roll by and  Babette wins a lottery. She asks the sisters if she might cook a special dinner for the villagers, who are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the father’s birth. Little do the sisters suspect that Babette plans to cook the most fabulous meal ever.

babette3So villagers used to eating dried fish and rye bread crust gruel find themselves partaking of Blini Demidoff au Caviar (buckwheat cakes with caviar and sour cream); Potage à la Tortue (turtle soup); Caille en Sarcophage avec Sauce Perigourdine (quail in puff pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce); La Salad (featuring Belgian endive and walnuts in a vinaigrette); and Les Fromages (blue cheese, papaya, figs, grapes and pineapple), with the grand finale dessert Savarin au Rhum avec des Figues et Fruit Glacée (rum sponge cake with figs and glacéed fruits). Numerous rare wines and Champagnes complete the menu. The dinner scene gets funnier every time I watch it, because the straight-laced diners have taken a vow not to notice the food, no matter how delicious.

babette2Under the influence of the wonderful meal, the diners, who had been quarreling with one another, are reconciled. In a transcendent moment, recognizing the shortness of life and their love for one another, they dance together under the stars. The sisters are flabbergasted to learn that Babette had spent all of her lottery winnings on the meal. Sister Martine tearfully says, “Now you will be poor the rest of your life,” to which Babette replies, “An artist is never poor.”

Dinesen’s ability to show the deep sadness of life along with its joy and comedy make this a unique movie to me. Babette’s Feast,  which is in Danish, won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

As a side note, Pope Francis has identified Babette’s Feast as his favorite movie. (New Yorker, April 26, 2013). I am not at all surprised.