Thankful Thursday XXX – Netflix Shows Nothing Came Easy To Forrest, Forrest Gump

This Thankful Thursday, which is to say “yesterday”, I thought of a show I saw on TV the night before that : The Movies That Made Us. It’s a semi-regular show made for Netflix that looks at how movies we loved came together… often not as easily as it might seem! This week I’d watched the one concerning Forrest Gump. I’ve seen several other instalments, including recently Pretty Woman and Dirty Dancing, all movies I like or love. They have movies chronicled that I don’t care for too, but it’s not as interesting watching what almost went wrong on a movie I wish had gone south, is it?

Dirty Dancing was a small budget feature that couldn’t find anyone interested in buying the script until a direct-to-video company that seemingly operated out of a small office bought it for a pittance. It didn’t go direct-to-video and made more money than pretty much everything else the company did combined. Pretty Woman‘s creators wanted Richard Gere to be the leading man all along, and got him, and Julia Roberts to be the heroine, the “hooker with a heart of gold.” Only at the time, Roberts was an almost-unknown quantity, a co-star of the B-movie Mystic Pizza and not much else, and Gere was holding out for a known superstar to drive people to the box office to see him. Once he was convinced Julia had screen appeal, it still took weeks to find the right fabric and right designer to assemble her style metamorphosis. Oh… and in the original script, Vivian, (Roberts) was a druggie prostitute who was left behind after her whirlwind week of the high life with him. Not exactly the romantic fairytale, “Cinderella” people dream about or pay money to see. Re-write!

Then there’s Forrest Gump – the all-American unlikely hero movie that was the third-biggest money maker ever for Hollywood at the time and took home a cart of Academy Awards big enough to carpet Alabama. It starred Tom Hanks, already a solid, A-list actor, and Sally Field, one of America’s sweethearts. Seemed like a can’t miss, right? Of course, it was far from it. The orignal novel which it was based on is vaguely similar in outline … to put it impolitely, “idiot savant stumbles onto great deeds accidently”. But the author’s Gump was rather a rude, unlikeable sod with a pet monkey. Hardly anyone to get the masses cheering on. So, new writers came in to revise his character and it got bought by a biggish studio. But people changed desks there and soon the studio was telling the director, Robert Zemeckis, to cut back, it was costing too much. They wanted no shrimp story in the movie – filming on a boat on water costs more than on land -, wanted no part of the Vietnam saga… costs money to ship people overseas and some of the shots might be expensive, and if he had to run across the country, couldn’t they shoot all the shots in an L.A. city park instead of all across the country? And don’t even get us started on the complications of superimposing Hanks into historical footage of JFK and so on. Thankfully, Zemeckis stood his ground and he and Hanks ended up pitching in some of their own cash to get it completed.

Now, the reason I’m telling you all this isn’t to make you turn on the TV or pitch myself for a Cinema 101 tutoring job. It is instead to point out that things that things that work out great and seem easy are actually quite problematic and often require many hurdles to be jumped. If it took Tom Hanks and Richard Gere so much to get their classics completed, why should we think it’s got to be a lot easier for any of us to see anything we care about through to completion?

Greatness of any sort requires a lot of work and patience… and a little luck. I’m thankful to Netflix and their series for reminding me that.

Movie Extra 11 – Dead Poet’s Society

As I get to the penultimate category for this fun and informative event (Hanspostcard’s Movie Draft), I tackle a biggie – Drama. There are no shortages of great candidates for this, so I rather randomly picked 1989’s biggest drama – Dead Poet’s Society. It may not be my all-time favorite in the genre, but then again, there are so many good ones it would be difficult to really narrow it down to one. This is a film I’ve consistently liked in the 30-plus years since it came out and which holds its own still.

The irony of Dead Poet’s Society is that it took one of America’s favorite zany comics to elevate it to greatness, in a role decidedly short on over-the-top comic bits (although there are one or two points where Robin Williams adds his own brand of manic fun to an otherwise serious role.) The movie also returns Ethan Hawke to my list; he was the co-star of the “Before” trilogy I picked. In this one, his first significant film role, he has a supporting part.

The overview of the film is that its set in a private boys boarding school in Vermont during the 1950s. It’s the type of school that is designed to prepare young teenage boys and turn them into mature Ivy League business and med students, undoubtedly due to arrive in the pages of “Who’s Who” approximately a decade after their arrival there. Conformity and adherance to the rules is not only expected, it’s a given. Headmaster Nolan (Norman Lloyd) makes sure that is achieved, ruling with an iron fist and wooden paddle.

Enter John Keating, played by Williams. He’s the new English teacher, an alumni of the school, full of pep and excitement and seemingly set on alienating everyone in the school’s organization. He sets out to teach his class (including Todd, played by Ethan Hawke) poetry. Initially not the favorite subject for most of the lads. Keating however teaches it with verve and stresses the passion, the freedom of well-used words. “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world,” he tells them. He also points out that the real purpose of poetry is “Wooing women.” This catches their attention.

His enthusiasm is unusual at that institution, and his methods even more unorthodox. He has the students stand up on their desks.. to see the world differently. He coaxes the boys – terrified of breaking rules – to rip out pages from their text book that teaches a scientific formula for measuring the “greatness” of a poem. He teaches that the greatness of a poem is in how it makes you feel, how alive it makes you, not some mathematical formula. They quickly take to the teacher and start to break out of their shells; writing poetry of their own, persuing seemingly unobtainable young women of the town, and in the case of Neil, a shy boy with few friends, to take up acting. He finds not only does he love to act, he has a talent for it. This however, doesn’t please his 1950’s meatloaf-and-potato father who has him lined up for med school already. It all boils over when the lad takes on the role of Puck in a Shakespearean play, infuriating the father who pulls him out of school and enrols him in a military academy. Neil never makes it there.

In the aftermath, the school blame Keating for corrupting the kids and show him the door…but not before one of the most moving moments in contemporary film (spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen it), with Todd, then the others in the class all jumping up on their desks to salute the departing teacher, to the utter enragement of the headmaster. One by one they offer him their allegiance and respect.

It’s a touching moment and a great movie which highlights the shortfalls of the educational system , particularly in the past, and showcases the wonders that can happen if kids’ interests and talents are nurtured. It reminds us how much difference even one fine teacher can make in so many lives. It runs over two hours, but seems to end too soon. If you’re prone to teariness, it might be the type of film you want a box of Kleenex nearby for.

I loved it, which perhaps surprised no one more than myself, as I half to admit, I’m not a big fan of the manic, out-of-control, he’s so wacky, comedian Williams. But the man had the acting chops to pull off deep and even at times dark roles, as we see in Good Will Hunting as well. That man, as well as the decent, caring family man and baseball fan – those are the Robin Williams I miss.

The movie took in over $200M at the box office, making it one of that year’s top five films, and it was accorded generally good reviews, although Siskel and Ebert notably disliked it and called it “pious platitudes” with poor acting. To each his own. Dead Poet’s Society won an Academy Award for best original screenplay for writer Tom Shulman, while Williams was nominated for the Best Actor one.

“Poetry, beauty, romance, love – those are what we stay alive for ,” in the words of John Keating. And maybe for well made movies as well. I give Dead Poet’s Society four Neruda sonnets out of five.

Movie Extra 10 – The Answer Man

As this cool exercise (the movie draft run by Hanspostcard) winds down, I find I have three categories left to deal with – Westerns and War, the all-encompassing Drama and the combo of Romance and Holidays. This time around I’m going with the latter…but with a twist. Bear with me.

Last time out, I wrote about a romcom, You’ve Got Mail. I love the movie. Many of you do too, but the comments made it clear that it was a standout in that genre, since a lot of romance and romcoms are well…not great. So while there are a number of romance ones I do like still that I could pick – Sleepless in Seattle, Bridget Jones’ Diary, etc – and there are many excellent holiday movies (Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas to me without seeing A Christmas Carol, and A Wonderful Life, which I think someone already covered) I’m going to risk “wasting” a slot by writing about a movie which, well, frankly wasn’t that good. I’m not especially recommending it. But it did make me stop and think, which I hope you’ll agree is worth shaking up the exercise just a little. So far cumulatively, we’ve read about 100 columns from some terrific writers and reviewers and undoubtedly found a few great gems we’d not heard of or seen before. Now let’s hear about one you might be OK missing…

The Answer Man. Never heard of it? Don’t feel bad. Nor had I. Nor many people. People who’d read a memoir from one of its stars might not have either – she didn’t mention one word about it in her book!

It popped up on one of our streaming services here recently, and it was a rainy afternoon so my love decided to press play. Looked like it might be at least half-decent. If not precisely a cast that was star-studded with A-list superstars, at least some decent talent, like Jeff Daniels, Lauren Graham (whose memoir was out in the living room… she passed right over this one without a mention of it!) Tony Hale and Nora Dunn among others. The 2009 film was billed as a romance-comedy, though as it turns out both the romance and comedy were in short supply in it.

Now I’ll get to why I chose this one, besides it being fresh in my mind right now, but first a short summary, full of spoilers for those who actually might watch it.

Daniels plays Arlen Faber, a world-renowned author of a series of spiritual guidebooks, started with one called “Me and God.” Alas, Arlen is a cranky, rude recluse, a seeming utterly irreligious sort in reality. He has a bad back, and after throwing it out, he crawls – literally – across the city to a chiropractor, Elizabeth, played by Graham. She’s an over-protective single mother with a 7 year old son who’s likable enough but not very memorable, and new to the city after some poorly outlined bad marriage. She fixes the writer/philosopher’s back and he falls instantly head-over-heels in love with her. Arlen however is not very suave. And he’s inexplicably odd. He gets furious if a piano player plays the wrong song. He has signs on the doors in his house labeling what each room is (one of the few quirks that does get explained). He collects toys but keeps them locked up. And he has a slew of books he’s curiously obsessed with getting rid of.

Why he is so anxious to rid himself of the books is a mystery, so too why in ’09 he wouldn’t turn to e-bay or Amazon to do so. But instead he fixates on having an indie book shop near him take them. Enter the bookshop’s owner, Kris, a sadsack young alcoholic who brings in an entirely different storyline. His shop is failing, so he won’t buy Arlen’s used books. This sets off some sort of weird reaction whereby the writer becomes obsessed with shedding his books at the store, even dressing up in disguise and trying to leave them on the shelves. After some equally improbable twists, Kris figures out who Arlen is and looks to him for advice on all the mysteries of life. Kris has issues with his father, and an assistant at the store who’s only role appears to be to let Kat Dennings have a role and look cute. Arlen begins dating Elizabeth but his erratic behaviour is a lot for her to take, however, he bonds well with her son. She’s conflicted.

He eventually breaks from his incognito existence by doing a book signing at Kris’ store, and then throws cold water over the crowd by telling them his books are a crock of you-know-what. A metaphoric bucket of cold water, although he throws a real one over some other fans at another point. His love is displeased, so he sets off to win her again, a new man.

Wow, right? That’s a lot to take in in less than two hours (which might seem far longer than two while watching.) It was written and directed by John Hindman, his first feature film. Surprisingly he has one more equally obscure one to his credit. If you’d never heard of The Answer Man, perhaps it’s because it seemed to last just one week at the box office and took in less than $50 000! The exact take of the money-loser is up for debate, IMDB has it at about $27K while Wikipedia quote $48k. We doubt the producers who bankrolled it care much either way! It is typical of the indifference to it though; one source says it was filmed in North Carolina while the other agrees with the movie credits and lists Philadelphia. It was just so insignificant as for the reviewers to simply not care apparently. Although review it they did. Roger Ebert for example thought the so-called funny bits looked like “outtakes from a manic Jim Carrey movie” and pondered why such a famous author with so many fans wrote a life-changing book yet “no one in the film – no one – repeats a single thing they’ve learned from it!” USA Today say The Answer Man poses questions like “why do the characters behave in ways that bear little resemblance to reality? Why is this dreary comedy so devoid of humor?”

So why I am writing about it? Well I’d actually like some answers from The Answer Man‘s creator. I truly wonder what he was thinking when he began the work. What he thought of the result. If I had a guess at it, Hindman actually was trying to do too much. He had too many ideas, too many storylines and too little time (arguably too little talent as well) to see them through to completion. That’s a bit of a shame, because if cropped, two or three themes might have been worthy and yielded an interesting or entertaining movie. What if a famous theologian is either a nasty person or perhaps a bit of an atheist? How tough is it for a free-spirited woman to become a worried single mom? What if a grumpy old man is made human by a little child’s presence? What if a celebrity has some personality traits – autism perhaps – that make it difficult for them to function in normal society? Can an “answer man” who doesn’t believe in himself actually give the needed answers to a lost young man? Any one or two of those plotlines might have been an interesting story. Put all of them and half a dozen more into one film and fail to answer most of those questions and you have a mess.

The Answer Man. I give it one and a half hardcover tomes out of five. A failure but an ambitious one. Think of it next time you’re watching a good movie you like and realize how lucky you are, and how rare it is for a writer with an interesting idea to be able to turn that into a film which truly entertains. It might give you a whole new respect for the hundred films that have come before in this event!

Movie Extra 9 – You’ve Got Mail

As this fun and informative event (for new readers, this year I’ve been one of ten guest columnists doing movie reviews on the Slice the Life website, with each of us covering a movie from a dozen different categories) rolls towards completion, I find I still haven’t gotten to three of the most basic, and to me, best categories yet – drama, romance/holidays (a bit of an odd pairing perhaps but what’s more romantic than some holidays?) and of course, comedy. Today I’ll check off one of those boxes with one that could easily fall into two of the three above (according to IMDB)… the 1998 Comedy You’ve Got Mail. The cyber-age online romance starred America’s sweethearts of the ’90s, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. You couldn’t get much better than that then… unless you added in a golden retriever. Which they did (Brinkley).

It was the third in the triad of romcom movies produced and directed by Nora Ephron, ones which according to journalist Erin Carlson “saved” the entire genre. The two predecessors were When Harry met Sally and another Hanks/Ryan duet, Sleepless in Seattle. I often run into other guys who “hate” romcoms. I don’t; I guess I’m lucky because I’m not suffering when my sweetie wants to put one on for us to watch. But I can see where they are coming from in some cases. The entire genre is over-run with overly predictable and sappy ones where you’re not especially enthralled with either of the pair and the comedy is about as wooden as a canoe paddle. Which is something you end up feeling like you could use when you’re up a certain kind of creek without one as you watch.

The Ephron trio though are something different – witty, reasonably intelligent stories with people you can actually root for. Curiously, the bio of Ephron, I’ll Have What She’s Having, suggests these weren’t her favorite type of story to tell and fell far from her personal, turbulent relationship experiences. But few if any did this type of film better.

For this one, Nora was the primary writer, borrowing heavily from the 1940 movie The Shop Around the Corner for the idea. In the oldie, two co-workers who don’t like each other in the store fall in love with each other through letters they are sending to a pen-pal they never suspect is the other. It starred Jimmy Stewart and Maureen Sullavan. Stewart was America’s favorite “Every Man” at the time, so who better to play the male lead in the new one than the country’s ’90s favorite guy, Tom Hanks? And seeing the chemistry he and Meg Ryan had in Sleepless in Seattle, was their any other choice for the leading lady? I think not, and so too did Ephron who realized Meg was the rarest of rare actresses, one that men found attractive and watchable but women didn’t find sexy or blatant enough to be threatening. Hence, relatable.

In You’ve Got Mail, there are modern twists. Joe Fox (Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) aren’t co-workers but business rivals who despise each other. Or at least she despises him. He’s the boss of a large, big-box book store with discount prices and cappucino stands inside (think Barnes and Noble on steroids) while she is the owner of a tiny, well-established childrens book store started by her mother. She knows every kids’ book published and has parties in the shop where she reads stories to the neighborhood children. Her friend Birdie (played nicely by Jean Stapleton who’ll make you forget she’s “Edith” after a scene or two) points out that the store is already in a precarious position financially and the competition from a huge book store could pull them under. Aha! No wonder Kathleen doesn’t like the at-times slightly smug Fox.

She’s in a relationship with a self-absorbed writer while he is tied to an even more self-absorbed, whiny girlfriend. The only real solace either has is anonymous e-mails they send back and forth after meeting in a chat room. They bond over movies and the small pleasures of New York City, he gives her business advice (“Go to the mattresses!”) when she asks him non-specific questions about her struggling store. Of course, in time they decide to meet.

Well, even if you haven’t seen the movie, you can probably guess where it ends up, but how they end up together, how she forgives him for running her out of business is half the fun.

The movie showcased modern techonology (the title for instance was the little audio clip one heard when checking AOL e-mail, which was de rigeur back then) and the perils of the modern world – urban and cyber anonymity, big box stores taking over neighborhoods. The themes still ring true even though the specifics might now seem laughable to young people… who writes long e-mails to each other anymore? And wouldn’t the big box store now be the one struggling to stay afloat, crushed by Amazon? But the basics are as true as ever. Sometimes we don’t know the people in front of us and are too quick to make assumptions about them. There’s a worth in the small businesses, and there’s a trade-off to be made if we simply go to the cheapest or easiest option available. But then again, the large ones aren’t really all that evil.

The movie works to me even though the plotline might have been predictable. The writing is good, the dialog witty and fast-paced without seeming forced or unrealistic, there are a number of good supporting characters to flesh out the film without weighing it down. But first and foremost, it works because there’s some irresistible charm in the pairing of Tom and Meg together. I’ve seen it many a time and I still feeling like giving a little cheer at the end when the dog runs up, Fox appears, Kathleen sees the man of her dreams and sobs “I wanted it to be you!”

You’ve Got Mail… I give it four and a half bouquets of newly sharpened pencils out of five.

Movie Extra 8 – “Before” Trilogy

This time around, I check off one of the more interesting categories in this Hanspostcard Movie extravaganza – the “Series”. Films with stories so nice they had to be told more than twice! My choice in these is the Richard Linklater “Before” trilogy.

The trio of films looks at the evolving relationship of a bi-continental couple, Jesse and Celine as it evolves over nearly twenty years. It begins with Before Sunrise, a 1995 under-the-radar date movie fave, continues with Before Sunset in 2004 and (for the time being) ends with 2013’s Before Midnight.

The stories involve American Jesse and French mademoiselle Celine, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy respectively. A spoiler-laden overview would be essentially:

Gen X-ers who grew up an ocean apart meet on a train in Europe. Celine is on her way back home to Paris after visiting her grandma; Jesse is taking his time getting back to an airport to return home to the States after being dumped by his girlfriend on a Euro holiday. The pair are attracted to each other, talk their way through a train meal and impulsively spend a romantic night together in Vienna. They talk of life, alternately laugh and argue, wax philosophical and seem to trade off between being youthfully optimistic and prematurely jaded. They see the sights, taking in the Austrian nightlife, charm a bartender out of a bottle of wine and do what neither dared say in the process, namely begin falling in love. The sun comes up, life switches back to dreary reality, they go their separate ways understanding “the long distance thing” seldom works. However, they leave agreeing to meet again in six months.

Fast forward nine years and Before Sunset. Jesse is back in Europe, this time in Paris doing a book signing. He’s written a popular novel…based on a young couple spending a magical night together in Vienna. We aren’t left wondering what happened between him and Celine in the years since the train ride for long. She shows up at the bookstore and we find why what seemed to be destined never happened. They decide to spend the few remaining hours he has in town with the Parisienne showing him around her city. More lengthy, thought-provoking conversations take place between the now 30-somethings who have adult lives – jobs, partners, in his case a child – and plenty of problems with them. She plays him a song she wrote for him and he misses his plane. Leaving us to wonder for nine more years if he ever bothered getting on the next.

Until Before Midnight rolled around. The young romantics of the ’90s, upwardly mobile young near-singles of the ’00s are now a middle-aged couple, driving through Greece with their two children. That is to say their two children together; Jesse is crushed by having to send his son from a previous relationship back to the States. He’s now a famous author, has the woman of his former dreams, two cute little girls… and an increasingly bitter marriage. He pines and whines, while her cheerful quirkiness has largely morphed into spiteful anger and mistrust run amok. Their planned little romantic rendesvous away from the children becomes a soul-searching look at their lives together and apart through a psychologist’s microscope. “This is real life. It’s not perfect, but it’s real” he yells at her at one point, underscoring the theme of the entire series. We’re left with her considering that maybe imperfection might be good enough given the alternatives.

Ethan Hawke is a well-known fan of alternative rock. One might think he almost could have used three REM album titles for a shorthand to the three films – Life’s Rich Pageant, Fables of the Reconstruction and Reckoning. A magical fairy tale beginning, putting it all together for real and then dealing with the consequences of having done that.

The trio of movies stand up on their own, but are best seen as an entity. The settings are beautiful – Vienna at night, Paris, the Greek coastline – but the scene stealers are always the conversations between Jesse and Celine. These are movies for those who value dialogue over special effects or complicated plots. It’s crisp, it’s real, it rings true. Although Linklater and Kim Krizan are credited with writing, both Hawke and Delpy edited to their suiting resulting in characters who fully inhabit the actors, or vice versa. The first of the three has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and the second one was nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay.

As to whether we’ll see “Before Naptime” (he says snarkily) next year, Hawke recently said all involved like the idea of revisiting the couple again, but it will likely break the timeline and not be in 2022. Still, I hope they will be on screen again, and can only keep my fingers crossed for Jesse that his lady love hasn’t continued on her trajectory towards hostile unlikability!

All in all, I give the trilogy 3-and-a-half lumberjack shirts out of five, but would pick the first instalment as the stand-out for those who only want to see one.

Movie Extra 7 – Amelie

For my next movie pick in the springtime Movie Event at Hanspostcard’s site, I go across the sea to take care of the “Foreign” category by visiting a rather foreign culture – France. And their 2001 hit, Amelie.

The movie could be classified as a “rom com” since it has a bit of romance, and its own brand of humor, but those French do things a little differently, so this is no “Sleepless in Marseilles” or “Bride Wars In Berets.” The French are well-known for considering Jerry Lewis a comic genius, so it’s fair to say they have a slightly different sensibility than American audiences usually. Amelie is no exception, but to me, the cultural different and flat out quirkiness really work to its favor on this one.

Amelie, the movie stars Amelie the girl, played by a young Audrey Tautou long before she’d rise to international fame helping Tom Hanks crack some code or other. Amelie typically dresses as if she shopped at a place called Prematurely Dowdy, has a boy’s hair cut…and is cute as a button nonetheless. She has a rare kind of charm that flies off the screen, something made easier by her role in this one. Amelie is a shy and socially-awkward, but kind-hearted young woman living in the city, waitressing at a cafe. She was brought up by her stern, doctor dad after her Mom died tragically when the girl was young. Only the French could make a little girl’s mother dying a comedic high point – remember what I said about “quirky” and different sensibilities! Likewise, her first pet was a suicidal goldfish.

Grown up Amelie is shy but friendly enough and has a few friends, but no real boyfriend. She “tried sex once or twice but found the results were disappointing.” So she turns to little pleasures like skipping stones, picking out the perfect fresh fruit at the market and looking out her window, wondering about her neighbor’s lives. One day she finds a hidden box in her apartment, seemingly the “treasures” of some young boy who’d lived there years earlier – simple toys, cartoons, a photo or two. She wonders about the boy and why these things meant so much to him, so she sets out to find him. After some detective work and talking to many people, she does locate the now middle-aged owner of the box, who is touched. That thrills her so much she decides to make her mission making others around her happy – the aging lady still pining for the love who’d left her decades earlier, the “Glass man”, a painter with brittle bones who never leaves his apartment, the grocery delivery boy, a bit dim and obsessed with Lady Di but a good heart, her dad who wants to see the world but can’t leave his hometown. And if need be, once in awhile she sets out to perturb those who are spiteful… the delivery boy’s angry, condescending boss for example.

She works hard on little projects that will make these people around her happier. And along the way, she’s come across a mystery man in the subway she likes the look of. He’s always lurking around photo booths, and of course she wonders why. Her little projects bring her new friends lots of joy and so too her. All is well until a talking pig lamp and one of her neighbors give her an unwanted reality check. Her making others happy is fine and good, but all the while she’s afraid to take any risk to make herself and her life happier.

Of course, she decides the photo booth guy is worth persuing. Does she eventually make herself happy? Well, it is a “rom com” remember.

Amelie is quirky in every way; “whimsical” according to Wikipidia. It does require constant reading of the sub-captions unless you have an understanding of French far better than my couple years’ high school French provided me. The movie even has a unique, bizzaro world look featuring oft-odd camera angles and a digital effect that mimics photographic cross-processing. The result is contrasty, slightly “off” colors that tend to lean heavily to the green-yellow end of the spectrum.

All that said, it is an experiment that worked. Not only did it win the Best Film Award at the European Film Awards, it managed to rake in about $174 million, a highly impressive tally for a low-budget European flick.

If charming but offbeat is your taste; Amelie might be your movie. I give it four puffy poodles out of five.

Movie Extra 6 – High Fidelity

I like some musicals well enough (Grease, even The Sound of Music), and at times I love watching music movies of artists I like in concert. But since I love music, books, love reading and love romcom-style movies, how could my choice for the “Music or musicals” category in this exercise not be more obvious. My sixth choice in the Movie Draft Event run over at Slice The Life is the 2000 film High Fidelity.

Not many movies have me marking my calendar in advance for opening, but this one was one of the rare exceptions. That’s because I’d read the 1995 Nick Hornby novel on which it was based a few years before and that had become a favorite in my personal library. I found it relatable, funny and at times heart-breaking. To my surprise and joy, the Hollywood adaptation (directed by Brit Stephen Frears) stuck to the book remarkably closely, other than the obvious fact that the setting had been moved across the sea from London to Chicago. Apparently even Hornby was surprised at how faithful to the original Hollywood had been. “It appears to be a film in which John Cusack reads my book,” he’s said.

Cusack is the lead character, Rob, and is a perfect fit for the role. The capsule summary of it is essentially that he is a young 30-something who runs a run-down little specialty record shop and begins to wonder what went wrong with his life. This occurs when his long-time girlfriend, Laura (played by Danish actress Iben Hjejle, a relative unknown over here) splits up with him and moves out. Laura’s now an increasingly successful lawyer. He feels he can’t live up to what she wants or deserves. Besides, she’s changed. She still loves him but feels the problem is that he hasn’t changed. Other than growing lazier and more cynical since they first hooked up. By now Rob’s life largely consists of spending days at his record shop, co-staffed by the loud and obnoxious Barry (an over-the-top Jack Black) and quiet, nerdy Dick (Todd Louiso). The three have little in common other than their love of oft-obscure music and music trivia and making list after list of “top fives”… Top Five Side One, Track Ones. Top Five Songs About Death (“Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Gordon Lightfoot” Dick suggests. “”You bastard! That’s so good, that shoulda been mine!” Barry responds). And looking down their noses at most of their customers who know less than them about music. Rob’s nights; at home listening to , or re-organizing his countless thousands of records. All vinyl. Rob is a music purist.

When Laura leaves, he goes through a cycle of reactions consisting largely of anger and self-pity. He makes up a Top 5 Breakups list and cheers himself by yelling out the window at her she didn’t make the list. Still, he can’t help wonder what his mom pointedly asks him – essentially, why can’t he hold onto a woman? He decides to get back in touch with the “top 5 breakups” and deconstruct what went wrong in those relationships. He manages to have a fling with a local singer. All the while he feels worse, finally acknowledging Laura’s importance. “She didn’t make me miserable, or anxious or ill at ease. Y’know, it sounds boring but it wasn’t.”

Circumstances give them one last chance together. I won’t give away the ending, but suffice to say by the end, Rob’s figured out a few things a little better and sees a way forward.

The casting of the movie was perfect. Cusack was the downbeat, rather depressed everyman the character required, ordinary but with enough going on to make one believe he could be more. Black was in full-out, egocentric gag mode which I tire of quickly but in his limited role, he added some of the movie’s funniest bits. Hjejle was likewise a perfect choice for her role, a subdued but bright, attractive but not bimboish kind of woman we could easily imagine being in awe of the Rob she met years earlier, the fun record store guy by day/ club DJ by night Rob. Even the minor characters like Catherine Zeta Jones as the exotic, worldly Charley (another of Rob’s top 5 breakups) were spot on.

The movie wasn’t a smash, but it did turn a profit and was largely well-reviewed. Now a word of confession from me. I like the movie quite a lot. But back in 2000, I loved the movie. For some years it was one of my “top 5 films” of all-time. I was a single guy about Rob’s age and could relate to his inertia and his inability to figure out why relationships came and went. I liked the movie so much it was the reason I bought a DVD player…when it came out on home release, I couldn’t find a VHS so I figured it was time to at last adopt the new technology so I could watch it when I wanted. Now, looking back on it, Rob can be a bit of a … well, one of his co-workers names let’s say. He was at times too oblivious and too inconsiderate of those around him. But he’s human enough, smart enough and witty enough to be likable still. More importantly, as he grows through the movie and finally, as he says by the end has being a better man figured out for the first time. As I hope I have in the twenty years or more since it hit the big screen!

Funny, intelligent, relatable and with a decent soundtrack too (not to mention a Bruce Springsteen cameo)… I give High Fidelity four LPS – original, not re-released, mind you – out of five.

Movie Extra 5 – Rear Window

For my fifth choice in this movie bonanza, (put together by Hanspostcard with ten of us picking great movies) I take care of the Action/Adventure/Thriller category with an oldie but a goodie. There’s not a whole lot of action but there is nail-biting adventure and suspense in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Rear Window.

Any writer who’s ever taken any rudimentary writing course knows one of the first “rules” you’re told is “show, don’t tell.” Saying “Billy was frightened” is boring. Having Billy creeping down the hallway, sweating and cringing when the door he opens creaks a little is much more effective. Movie makers tend to know that too. But when it comes to murder, mayhem as well as things erotic, sometimes the viewer’s own mind is even more evocative than anything the screen reveals. Less can be more. That’s something many have forgotten these days but Hitchcock was the master of.

Which leads us to Rear Window, a tale of murder most foul in which we have little evidence of an actual murder even being committed. The premise of the story is that a globe-trotting, adventure-seeking photo-journalist, LB Jefferies (played by post-It’s A Wonderful Life Jimmy Stewart) is laid up at home in his New York apartment due to a broken leg. He’s restless and itching to get back out into the fray…anywhere but in a sweaty Big Apple apartment complex. Jefferies busies himself by watching all his neighbors from the window, with the help of his camera’s telephoto lens. “We’re becoming a race of peeping toms,” he states prophetically some 40 years before the advent of reality TV. Mind you, that doesn’t prevent him staring through his camera at his shapely young neighbor working out in a bikini of scandalous scantiness for the era. There’s her, there’s the lonely man playing piano (watch for Hitchcock to make one of his famous cameo appearances in his apartment), there’s the older woman with the little dog out in the courtyard. And the middle-aged bickering couple across the way.

All the while the photog’s girlfriend, elegant socialite Lisa (played by Grace Kelly) is attentive and hoping her man will see the attraction of staying home. She promises while he’s in a cast “I’m going to make it a week you’ll never forget.” An innocent enough remark in this day and age but doubtless a shockingly suggestive one for the 1950s. We can’t quite see the reason they are a couple to begin with, but she seems in love with him and the nurse who looks in on him tries to nudge him towards settling down with the lovely lady. He clearly seems to think something’s missing and that Lisa could never understand his need for excitement and investigation.

Until that is, the wife of the bickering couple comes up missing and Jefferies begins to suspect foul play is involved. He comes up with a scenario in his head, but being immobile can’t investigate. Perhaps the husband has killed his wife. Which is when Lisa shows there’s more to her than pearls and furs and puts herself in the line of danger to do the footwork for her boyfriend. Which is where the nails start being bitten and the tension heats to the boiling point just as the summertime city was doing simultaneously.

Do the duo crack a murder case or merely fall victim themselves… to over-active imaginations? You’ll have to watch for yourself to find out. What is clear is that the gruff photographer comes to see his hometown as less dull than he imagined it and his lady a lot more interesting and adventurous than he’d given her credit for. As a romance, Rear Window is lukewarm. As an edge-of-the-seat thriller, it’s hard to beat.

At the time of its release, it won generally good reviews (the New York Times for instance note that “what it has to say about people and human nature is superficial and glib but it does expose many facets of the loneliness of city life” but still call it “a tense and exciting exercise”) and made about five times its million dollar budget back at the box office in its first run. It received four Academy Award nominations but lost out, including the Best Screenplay which ended up going to another Grace Kelly film, Country Girl.

Rear Window may be the least bloody murder movie made…but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the best as well. I give it three-and-a-half Nikons out of five.

Meg Shone But Real Star Was On Sidelines

Some are surprised by the fact but some guys like movies that are fun and romantic more than ones which feature a lot of things blowin’ up. I’m one of those guys, so I don’t mind when my sweetie wants to snuggle up for the evening and put on a classic Romcom movie. Now there were some goofily fun ones made in the ’50s and her beloved Jane Austen wrote works which had the romance if not the comedy part of the equation, some of which have been made into perfectly acceptable period movies. But for me, you can’t do any better in that genre of film than the trio of late-20th Century smashes from Nora Ephron : “When Harry Met Sally”, “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.” All three had complicated romances, and all three had Meg Ryan as the female lead. Not a bad formula at all.

So I quite enjoyed reading the book I’ll Have What She’s Having, loosely a biography of writer and director Ephron, but more specifically an in depth look at those three movies and how they came about. The Erin Carlson book looks at Nora’s upbringing and her turbulent marriage to Watergate reporter (made heroic in the book and movie All the President’s Men) Carl Bernstein, which itself resulted in the movie Heartburn, and ends by filling us in a little on Ephron’s life after the three movies mentioned as well as those of the main stars. Still the bulk of the book is on the works Carlson says “saved the romantic comedy.”

Whether or not it did that, Nora certainly raised the bar for the type of film and made Ms. Ryan into America’s sweetheart. Whether coincidentally or not, Ryan probably looks the best in the book, generally as nice to be around and as bright as her movie characters. Tom Hanks also comes out looking good, a little reluctant to do so many romance movies but good to everyone on set and a great actor. Billy Crystal and Rob Reiner are seen in fine light… really the only featured person (besides the ever-philandering Bernstein) who isn’t shown to be a joy to be near was Ephron herself. Ephron is depicted as prickly, short-tempered and rather close-minded. However, that might be what made her a great movie-maker. She was also obsessively attentive to detail and had a great sense of dialog and movie pacing. Reading the book, one comes to expect none of the three movies would have amounted to much had it not been for Nora’s vision for them and insistence on certain actors being cast and scenes being shot.

Fans of the three movies will be interested in a lot of the trivia that resulted in them being like they were. An entire storyline cut out of You’ve Got Mail to keep it to under two and a half hours. The iconic “baby fish mouth” in When Harry Met Sally being adlibbed by Bruno Kirby. And of course, the punchline the book got its name from, the classic diner scene in When Harry Met Sally in which prim Sally fakes an orgasm at the table… to Harry’s mortification. Turns out that was Meg’s idea, and Rob Reiner (the director) thought it was brilliant… until he began to sweat when his own mom was brought on set!

However, even if these films aren’t your cup of tea and you prefer ones with a lot of explosions and perhaps heroes in capes, if you’re a fan of Hollywood and films in general, it could be interesting. Carlson details much of the film-making process, and how a so-so script is edited, tweaked and rewritten, sets are searched for and meticulously created, lighting sculpted, the processes of finding the right actor for the roles and much more that would be as applicable to a Marvel adaptation or teen gross-out flick as it would a mature romcom.

A fun and interesting read. I’ll give it 3.5 AOL mailboxes out of five.

Movie Extra 4 – Groundhog Day

For my fourth pick in this movie exercise (run by Hanspostcard at his site), I check off the “Sci-fi/Fantasy” category with one of my all-time favorites. And let me say I’m glad the two genres got lumped together, because frankly, I’m rarely a fan of science fiction. So rise and shine, fantasy lovers because it’s Groundhog Day!

For the unitiated, Groundhog Day was the 1993 comedy starring Bill Murray celebrating – or perhaps mocking – the beloved February 2nd Pennsylvania tradition of seeing if the groundhog (Punxsutawney Phil) will see his shadow, and thereby prognosticating if spring will come early. Or as the star of the movie would put it, “one of the times when television really fails to capture the true excitement of watching a large squirrel predicting the weather.” In a nutshell, Murray, the master of deadpan comedy in that era, plays another Phil, Phil Connors, a cynical Pittsburgh TV weatherman. He’s assigned to cover the Groundhog event, with his producer Rita (played by Andie McDowell) and a station cameraman, the goofy and slightly dim Larry (Chris Elliott, at the time star of TV sitcom Get A Life). Connors hates the event, hates the small town and wants nothing more than to hightail it out back to the city. But, a snowstorm he didn’t see coming keeps him in town for the day. Then, through unknown black magic (hence the “fantasy” designation) he ends up trapped in Punxsutawney, reliving the same day over and over and over again. So well-known is the plot that “groundhog day” has become well-known as a euphemism for boring states of affairs where nothing ever changes. It was based on Danny Rubin’s first screenplay (he’d win a BAFTA Award for it) which was tweaked by SCTV-alumni Harold Ramis, which doubtless explains some of the ridiculous but hilarious comic bits.

Of course, Phil goes through all sorts of reactions to his recurring day – disbelief, anger, conniving manipulation, conceit (he tells Rita at one point “I am a god,” to which she expresses skepticism so he clarifies “Iam A god, I’m not THE God. I don’t think…”), industriousness (why not learn to play piano or ice sculpt with a chainsaw if you have all the time in the world?) and finally a mature realization of what a gift he has been given. He can do almost infinite good since he has the time and the knowledge of what will happen that day. If he knows bad outcomes, he can work on changing them for the better. The maturing weatherman falls in love and finally, by losing himself, or his ego at least, he finally finds fulfillment and happiness. He also learns that planning for the unknown only takes you away from being happy in the moment. No wonder entire books have been written about the philosophy behind the movie.

Surprisingly, Ramis and Rubin say they didn’t intend to write anything more than “ a good heartfelt, entertaining story.” University courses and religious sermons alike have since been dedicated to the philosophy behind the movie, which most curiously of all was apparently an aspect of the film the normally goofy Murray was especially anxious to play up. Murray’s said that the film speaks to him because it deals with people being afraid to change and “having the strength and knowledge to make a change when faced with the opportunity to repeat (or right) previous mistakes.”

Learning, evolving… Groundhog Day is right there with A Christmas Carol as a classic overnight bad-to-good redemption tale. Which is part of why it was brilliant and still resonates even as the cars and technologies seen in it seem increasingly outdated. But there’s the other part as well. It’s also there with other Murray classics like Ghostbusters as a simple comedy. Groundhog Day works because it’s just flat out funny. We fall on the floor laughing as we’re subtly being preached to. No matter how many times I see it, I still laugh at Phil’s changing reactions to Ned (his insurance-selling old schoolmate), or him lazily answering every question on Jeopardy to the amazement of everyone around him. Not to mention Phil the Groundhog driving… “don’t drive angry!”

Mindless comic fun that actually has an alter-ego as a remarkably deep philisophical statement on the meaning of life. Either way, Groundhog Day works for me. I give it a rare five out of five woodchucks!