Sunday, December 30, 2012

Christmas Movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2006)
Now that the Oscar-bait movies are mostly released in October and November, the Christmas season isn’t quite the pressure-cooker it used to be. I went once each on the 23rd, 25th, 26th, 30th, 31st and January 2nd, which is actually a very light schedule (to pad it out I also watched seven movies on DVD or video over the same period). Now admittedly I didn’t see Cheaper by the Dozen 2, so maybe I stole two hours there from a deserving experience.

Anyway, these are all pretty easy movies to watch and write about, and they may not have loomed as heavily in my mind as my yearlong ambition to listen at least once to every track on my ipod. All year long, I had very diligently avoided listening even to my favourite old tracks more than once, obsessed with spreading my patronage evenly. I knew I wasn’t going to make it, but I avoided scrolling through the menu until time had run out, on the evening of the 31st, at which point I discovered I had 132 albums on there that had gone unlistened-to in their entirety. This seems to me to say more about the futility of man’s quest in the universe than any amount of natural disaster and existential illumination. And you should see my reading pile…

Fun with Dick and Jane

Fun with Dick and Jane seems at times like it might have a coherent reason for remaking the 1977 Ted Kotcheff comedy (which starred George Segal and Jane Fonda) – any movie that leads off its end credits with a roll call of the main culprits in Enron, WorldCom etc. clearly has something on its mind. And for the first half hour, the film’s portrayal of a couple’s overextended lifestyle brought down by corporate malfeasance and its resulting economic devastation, although superficial in its references and analysis, makes for reasonable satire. Then, at their lowest ebb, they decide to turn to crime, and the movie becomes weirdly sketchy and slapdash, before regrouping for a moderately well executed turn-the-tables finale. Maybe this is purely subjective, but Tea Leoni (who, apropos of nothing, I just discovered was born on exactly the same day as I was – cool!) seems too intelligent for her role, whereas Jim Carrey has something like the opposite problem – his patented mugging hardly makes sense for this material, and the film seems to tie itself into a knot to accommodate him. I don’t remember the original very well, but it seems to me to have been quite a bit more effortlessly resonant than this one, but then that’s true of virtually any mainstream movie comparison spanning the three decades. Anyway, I’ve certainly seen worse, if that’s worth anything.

Transamerica, directed by Duncan Tucker, comes close at times to a one-woman show – she’s Felicity Huffman, playing a man on the verge of a sex-change operation into a woman. Huffman brilliantly conveys this transitional state, and nails the character’s overly strenuous delicacy; the twist is that her physical issues are ultimately less definitive than her unresolved emotional and familial loose ends. The greatest of these loose ends is a teenage son she’s never met; they’re now thrown together through a rather strained set-up and embark on a road-trip to Los Angeles, where he aspires to star in porno movies. Much of the material sags, with familiar set-ups, revelations and reversals, until they reach Huffman’s parents (played, in a one of the year’s most wackily inspired casting flourishes, by Fionnula Flanagan and Burt Young) and things become more broadly comic. The ending is sentimental, but preserves the movie’s commendable if calculated openness toward diversity and breadth of lifestyles. As what we might call Sundance-friendly movies go, this is on the high end of the quality scale, but it owes Huffman almost everything.

Rumor Has It

Rumor Has It started filming with its writer Ted Griffin as a first-time director; he was fired early on, and seasoned smoothie Rob Reiner stepped in to save the day. He delivers a lush, deliberately paced film, but this approach seems at odds with the inherently rather perverse material, in which a young woman finds out that The Graduate was based on her own mother and grandmother, and then ends up sleeping with the man who slept with both of them. The film starts Jennifer Aniston, in her patented so-so manner, and also Kevin Costner and Shirley Maclaine, both of whom are quite good, but don’t seem subject to any logical overall strategy. The movie lumbers through contrivances and implausibilities galore, all of which would be forgiven if it had sufficient screwball energy to blast past them. As the current crop of comedies goes, it’s sadly no Fun with Dick and Jane.

Mrs. Henderson Presents, directed by Stephen Frears, is about an upper-class battleaxe in 30’s London who buys a theatre after being widowed, puts the bums in the seats by presenting naked women (within the law as long as they don’t move an inch, this being deemed the difference between titillation and artistic display), and then fights to keep the show going during WW2. It’s a very tightly constructed, efficient film, although the greater part of that efficiency is simply in how it lobs softballs to Judi Dench. She gets to deliver an array of naughty words, put the men in their place, wear a bear suit…at one point she even seems on the verge of doing a nude scene, but we’re thankfully spared that (no such luck though for her co-star Bob Hoskins, as the long-suffering – could it be otherwise? – theatre manager). It’s all a true story, but that doesn’t make the movie any nuttier; and it’s so well calculated and poised that it ends up feeling a bit airless. The relatively unknown Kelly Reilly, as the most alluring of the nudes, eclipses her famous co-stars by giving a performance of excessive depth and subtlety.


Casanova is an unusually breezy effort from Lasse Hallstrom, the accomplished but helplessly dull craftsman behind The Cider House Rules and Chocolat. In a stunning contrast to his role in Brokeback Mountain, Heath Ledger plays the Venetian lover, caught up here in a silly plot of Papal inquiries, mistaken identities, subterfuge, swordplay and chase scenes, revolving around his infatuation with a woman (Sienna Miller) whose progressive ideas of female empowerment put him beyond the pale…until, of course, he isn’t. Venice looks occasionally digitally enhanced but still ravishing, and the movie deftly pitches itself just the right side of slapstick (for example, there’s lots of falling over, and Oliver Platt smeared in lard). As an evocation of the real Casanova I imagine it’s an utter travesty, but all I can say is it hit the spot for me.

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