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This blog is the work of an educated civilian, not of an expert in the fields discussed.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Movie Weekend

And Also: Happy President's Day ... let's give a nod to them all, not just two. As to 44, Barack Obama has an interesting upbringing. His mom's thoughts on religion are also of interest. The fairly early deaths of his parents (and stepfather even) is also notable. For me, his bio is a plus. As to his "unity" bit, honestly, it works (it hits the zeitgeist, even for baseball fans watching the steroid hearings). You go with what works, especially if you really do believe in it. And, you can only do so much anyway. All this talk about details is a bit silly. Like he is to be the prime minister crafting legislation.

A three for $20 deal at Blockbuster provided a means to purchase a few movies that were little gems. The fourth was paid for by a gift card ... and was suitable payback for the last Abigail Breslin film I watched, a sad re-make of Mostly Martha. A movie which -- like the other three -- worth watching again, including as a commentary track plays. This includes various moments that underline my love of movies.

Sweet Land is based on a short story, short enough that I was able to quickly read it at Barnes and Nobles yesterday. The story in effect supplies the setting and characters, not much more, and changed a few details at that. But, "A Gravestone Built of Wheat" provided an essential flavor that led to the movie as a whole. The commentary track also lets us know how long it took to be made, which is often amazing, when you think about how one movie among many was so much work.

[DVD commentary tracks are a passion of mine and let me add that the one for Gracie (of additional value, given the film's semi-autobiographical elements) is charming too -- I speak in particular of the brother/sister one (they have small roles in the movie too), including its play by play of the climatic game scene. It also has one from the director, who is Elizabeth Shue's husband ... so you have personal plus technical. Add the movie and nice "making of the movie" short, the DVD is an excellent resource.*]

Like the Super Bowl, it seems so transitory (shooting itself took only a month), but for those involved, it was a long hard effort. To add to the metaphor, supporting cast -- some with basically a cameo role -- played such an important part. They often -- and I do repeat it because it's true -- make the movie. Consider the "second bananas" of stars of movies, who really are more interesting that the pretty vanilla "main attractions." To toss a movie in the theaters, though Ryan Reynolds is not quite as white bread as he looks, Definitely, Maybe is helped by a small role by Kevin Kline -- nice to see him again.

Sweet Land concerns a young German mail order bride (at first thought to be Norwegian) who receives a rough reception at a Minnesota farm community c. 1920. And, she is not vanilla. The lack of subtitles adds to gap in understanding, but adds to the connection that grows between the couple on an emotional level. The movie also has a low key quality that makes it a quiet gem. For instance, the clear sexual tension that arises is "PG" only in a purely physical sense (the DVD clipped off a frame where we saw the butts of the actors, the scene where Olaf accidentally catches Inge taking a bath). The randy nature of Alex Kingston's character (playing American as well) is also well done ... especially the pie scene. Those with big families got them for a reason!

The bookend scenes (the central movie in effect a flashback) are a bit rough -- the commentary noted it was originally much longer -- but work fairly well too. It also gives a veteran actress a chance to shine. The movie also provides a chance to remind us about small town parochialism, the fear of others that later turned into acceptance, the dark side of farm life (foreclosures etc.), and how rules are sometimes bent for what is more deeply important. The development of the minister's feelings of the couple is of particular interest here. See also the discussion board at the link provided.

To skip ahead, one thing I liked about Sweet Land was the connections between the characters not shown in a blunt physical sense. Definitely, Maybe was enjoyable partially for that reason. It came out on Valentine's Day, and does have a bit "too cute" side (all the main characters have a white bread cuteness to them, including the daughter, best seen in Little Miss Sunshine) . And, the NY Daily News basically thought so. I am with the NYT, however, in thinking the movie warrants more credit. It might be "Hollywood" deep, but it does have a certain depth. Ryan Reynolds, after his turn in The Nines, also just might be getting out of the rather bad movie rut he is known for.

Shades of The Princess Bride, the movie is sort of a bedtime story [the credits sequence was cute too ... the fact I pass the area all the time was rather nifty too] for the character's daughter, who heard a classmate mention he was an "accident," after her school gave a sex ed lecture. Her mom and dad are about to divorce, so she is on edge anyway. [Abigail Breslin isn't just cute here ... some real emotional resonance.] So, his dad basically tells her (somewhat edited) how he came about having her. This involved three main relationships, only one which was to result in his daughter.

There aren't too many surprises, though everything isn't quite predictable (I liked that), but the movie takes its time (some thought it too long ... 112 min. is a bit long for a romantic comedy, though this is more than that) which was basically a plus. It also was a nifty way to have an extended look at the 90s, the story starting with him as a lowly Clinton staffer from Wisconsin during the '92 New York campaign. The film's length provides us time to see his life and relationships grow, honestly not with sooo much depth but real enough. It was overall a good effort, even if some might not go for it. Again, technically well done as well.

Various scenes had bite, including one which he commented that maybe impeachment would be warranted ("if he has so much trouble with a word like 'is,' how will he handle tough words, like 'truth'" ... paraphrase) . I must add that "Emily" (Elizabeth Banks) was great in Slither ... Snakes On A Plane was a bit of a disappointed. But, do see that. Also, and this bears mentioning in this day and age, smoking was key to a couple scenes. One comment on the IMDB message board even suggested it had a veiled add for American Spirits cigarettes (though the scene fit and was a nice foreshadowing of his future job).**

[The film has the Clinton years as an important background, and "Clinton" makes a cameo. Thus, there are real historical figures portrayed in some fashion. But, we have the usual "no characters based on real life" disclaimer. This annoys me -- tack on a "or used in a fictional way" clause people.]

The third film I purchased was Waitress, which I have not seen again, so maybe I will wait on that. Suffice to say the director/co-star in real life was murdered (for some pathetic reason) just when her career was showing particular promise. Well, if this gem of a movie (and commercial for pie) has anything to say about it.


* Let me briefly note that Gracie, semi-biographical in the the Shue family loved soccer, grew up working class in New Jersey (great use of locales and Springsteen songs) and had a brother die at an early age -- though in his 20s, not as a teenager -- concerns a teenage girl struggling to get on the boy's soccer team. This was a way to get over the death of her brother, which lead to a period of depression and risk taking (powerfully shown), and also to connect with her dad. The sports scenes might have a predictable arc, but the setting and emotional connections are powerful, and the film is technically excellently done. See also, Miracle ("do you believe in miracles?!").

In real life, Elizabeth Shue played team soccer as a girl, but stopped around high school (social pressures led her to stop; interestingly, it is the husband commentary track that tells us that, not hers) -- so don't assume the actress -- who some might recognize from the show Lizzie McGuire -- is completely playing her. OTOH, parts of the character really was like her, and the commentary suggested how personal the film was to the family members involved in its production. Shue plays her mom (some experience!) and her brother (Andrew, now playing a "McDreamy" part on T.V.) has a smaller role as the junior varsity coach.

** "Rated PG-13 for sexual content, including some frank dialogue, language and smoking."