Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Film for Adults, and not just older ones

Every year, especially in the summer, there is a glut of movies for adolescent males (read 13 on to senility in some cases). Superheroes, action thrillers, and gross-out comedies strangle the multiplexes for months. Last summer Woody Allen's most successful movie Midnight in Paris garnered a large adult and delighted audience. This summer's adult entry is the British comedy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which focuses on seven aging Brits from varying class backgrounds who decide to retire to a luxury hotel in Jaipur, India. What they find when they arrive is a broken down dump run by an overly excited young man, played by Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel.

But the spell of India with its constant noise, music, and color changes their disappointment into an opportunity for personal growth and even romance. The cast is exemplary, drawing from the best of BBC and Masterpiece Theater greats. The redoubtable Maggie Smith trades her uppity Downton Abbey accent for that of a house servant who has come to India for an inexpensive hip replacement. Judi Dench leads the cast as a widow whose husband has left her in debt. Her warm, engaging personality touches almost all of the expatriates and leads to a new love in her life (Bill Nighy). Tom Wilkinson gives a sensitive performance as a respected barrister with a dark secret in India. All of this sounds serious, but this is a comedy with drama. The cast lifts the somewhat mundane plot to comical heights through their interactions with each other and an alien culture. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a delightful version of the philosophy "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade."

On a related note, when I saw this film in Memphis three weeks ago, the theater was fully packed. The next showing promised the same response. Yes, there was a lot of gray but also younger heads as well. Recently NBC canceled its highest rated drama series Harry's Law because the 18-45 audience wasn't watching, and they are the buyers! When will Hollywood figure out that there IS a buying audience and it's growing.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Please don't get me wrong. This is not a screed against religion, Catholicism or any other theological belief. Instead it is question addressed about recent attacks by American Catholic bishops on President Obama and his administration's stance on health care. This week a group of Catholic bishops has launched a "Fortnight for Freedom," in which they intend to fight back against Obama's attempts to impose certain health care sanctions with fasting and prayer. This follows a number of surprisingly strong statements from fellow bishops, including Bishop Daniel Jenky from Peoria, Illinois. "Hitler and Stalin, in their better moments, would just barely tolerate some churches staying open....President Obama with his radical pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda now seems intent on following a similar path."

Note the alarmist words used by Bishop Jenky in a sermon (no less): Hitler, Stalin, radical, pro-abortion, extreme, secularist, agenda. The bishops have said their attacks on Obama are backed by American Catholics. Polls indicate that 57 % of American Catholics are not worried about their religious freedoms. Naturally most of this has been a reaction to the Obama administration's requirements concerning birth control. A church would not be required to offer birth control or pay for it, but Catholic hospitals or universities would. Insurance companies have agreed to swallow the costs because it was cheaper than paying for maternity and child care costs.

In a time when almost 97 per cent of Catholic women, according to many surveys, take birth control at some point in their lives, this all seems a moot point. But try telling the bishops pushing a "Fortnight for Freedom." And ask if that "freedom" includes a woman's freedom to choose.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Prometheus vs. a board game

Which seems more promising? A huge space epic that considers the origins of humans, creation, and Charlise Theron in super tight pants OR a huge alien invasion epic based on a board game from my childhood? Believe it or not, Prometheus, Ridley Scott's much anticipated prequel or sequel or whatever-quel, is less enjoyable than the bloated and cliche-ridden Battleship.

How is this possible? Both movies have shockingly high budgets and amazing special effects. I'm not saying that Prometheus isn't worth seeing. In fact, it is a much better film in almost every respect, except one, the entertainment factor. Battleship, a mash-up of Top Gun and An Officer and a Gentleman, chronicles the coming to manhood of a complete mess-up, played by Friday Night Lights'
Taylor Kitsch. Since this is a fantasy, don't be surprised that our hero manages to overcome Navy brass, the admiral's refusal to have him for a son-in-law, and an alien invasion (a nod to too many movies). The movie moves quickly, the dialogue is corny but fun, and the battles impressive.

Prometheus, on the other hand, has even better and more spectacular effects, many based on the classic designs of the Alien films, the first of which was directed by Ridley Scott. It is a visually gorgeous film. Despite his best efforts, Scott has bitten off more than he can handle. The film suggests that aliens have visited eons ago and now their calling cards have begun a major space probe, manned by good archeologists and bad corporate types (Theron). Neither quite find what they wanted to. But they do encounter lots of horrors, some quite similar to the earlier Alien films, but without the surprise effects. Warning: some of the effects are stomach-churning and difficult to watch, especially the most graphic Caesarian birth ever filmed (even on the medical channels).

So, it's your choice. Alien invasion or human invasion of aliens. Or maybe wait for the new Spiderman.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The TV season...Is there a second act?

This has been a better than average television season and now it's almost over. House closed its season and its series with a rather pretentious soul-searching episode, but the show itself was unique and satisfying for most of its run. Since I only committed to a few dramatic series, I quickly dropped The Killing, a police drama that showed early promise but bogged down in too much nearly black and gray photography and too many red herrings. I almost did the same for Glee, since season 2 was uneven and didn't compare with the pizzaz and invention of the previous season. But I have stuck with Season 3 just hoping for improvement. It didn't happen. The musical numbers hit their nadir with a whole show dedicated to Whitney Houston!

The big questions with my favorite shows is what can happen next after so many plot explanations? Revenge, my favorite guilty pleasure developed its mystery quickly, but as we approach its denouement, what can possibly happen next year? The same could be said for Mad Men, one of the best and most honored series in ages, which has been rocky and lacking direction. How many times can Don Draper make us hate him? Though I'm still impressed by the re-creation of the 1960's look and aura, the quirkiness and subplots often take away from the drama. But the last two episodes have restored my faith. SPOILER ALERT: Joan prostituted herself to achieve full partnership, Peggy quit for greener pastures, and the Brit manager hanged himself. All of these events weighed heavily on Don and gave him a more human dimension.

I have also become a fan of the show biz drama Smash, a seemingly adult version of Glee, where two talented chorus girls vie for the star role in a musical based on Marilyn Monroe's life. It started with a bang but bottomed out mid-season. However, the last three episodes found the show's momentum again and used some great musical numbers and plot twists. And finally, my favorite new show was Person of Interest, a suspenseful procedural about a nerdy but brilliant scientist (Micheal Emerson of Lost) who has invented a machine that can focus on a person who is in danger of being killed. Jim Caviezel is perfect as a former CIA agent who has gone rogue but now acts as the enforcer for the scientist. This is one show to watch.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Let's cut to the chase. Snow White and the Huntsman is the freshest, best looking, and most exciting of the year's big ticket films. It outperforms The Avengers in originality, plot and character development and especially physical detail. Director Rupert Sanders infuses the Grimm fairy tale with even more grimness and darkness than even the brothers may have intended. Men (Chris Hemsworth, et al) are on the screen, but they pale between the conflict between Snow White (Kristen Stewart in a strong and tender performance) and the evil Queen Ravenna (Charlise Theron who throws herself into malevolence like a child attacks ice cream). The previews suggested that the film would be a special effects bonanza, and it is. But even more important, Snow White and the Huntsman uses these effects not only to dazzle but also to build character and conflict. The sight of Theron emerging from a magical milk bath or swirling herself into cawing ravens enforces her sense of desperation for the one thing that can keep her young, Snow White's heart.

Sanders has used a popular theme not found in Grimm. He draws from Arthurian legend, especially from John Boorman's splendid Excalibur, which emphasized the idea that the king (this time the princess to be queen) is the land and the land is the king (queen). Boorman has a famous sequence where Britain and the land have died until Arthur has had a vision of the Grail and rides forth with his knights for his final battle. As they ride forth, the barren landscape breaks forth in foilage and flora to triumphant music from Carmenia Burana. Snow White and the Huntsman makes glorious use of this sequence with the restored Snow White and her knights thundering towards the Queen's castle and ultimate redemption.  This is a film that is exciting, scary, beautiful, and inspiring. See it.