1408 (2007). Showtime taping. Stephen King adaptation about a jaded writer (John Cusack) who has frittered away his promising career writing travel guides for haunted places. Tipped on a mysterious hotel room where several tenants killed themselves, the skeptical Cusack books a night — despite the warnings of hotel manager Samuel L. Jackson. This was more creepy than scary, and somewhat disappointing despite a winning turn by a perfectly schlumpy Cusack. The filmmakers decided to take a mainstream approach, leading to several moments where I wished it had gone into really freaky and bizarre territory. Instead it plays it safe, although having a clock radio that only plays the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” at full blast would truly be horrific.
Here Come the Waves (1944). Genial, brainless WWII entertainment. Bing Crosby stars as a crooner who enlists in the Navy. Betty Hutton plays twins — one a brassy blonde, the other a demure brunette. As the “aw shucks” fourth wheel, Sonny Tufts once again makes me wonder why he was ever a movie star. Predictable flag-waving stuff, with several handsome production numbers involving multitudes of marching uniformed women. The biggest surprise is Betty playing the low-key sister. She’s actually very good, giving off a subtle, Eve Arden-ish vibe very different from her more typical persona as the ditsy blonde sister. I watched her in this part and thought, “Here’s a lady that should have been given more chances to prove her versatility.” Alas, she went back to playing ditsy blondes seemingly for the rest of her career.
Miss Potter (2006). Showtime taping. Beautifully produced and insanely sweet movie about the life of Beatrix Potter. Renée Zellweger is her usual squinty-eyed self in the title role. She admirably transforms herself into a plain-looking, eccentric woman who speaks to the animals in her drawings. Still, I felt like I was watching an actress playing a part, never truly witnessing scenes from Potter’s life. I also felt that the film’s central proto-Feminist theme has been done a million times before, and the direction was too goopy and sentimental (at times it was like watching a “Hallmark Hall of Fame” TV movie). I did enjoy this movie, however, and unlike many others I found the sequences with an animated Peter Rabbit and other creatures incredibly appealing.
Together (2002). Slice-of-life Chinese family drama about a gifted young violinist who attempts to find a mentor via his pushy and uncouth father (kind of a male Stella Dallas). This is one of the most Western looking Chinese films I’ve ever seen; a good suggestion for a subtitle-phobic movie viewer. It has a wry sense of humor that reminded me at times of the Japanese version of Shall We Dance?. It won’t knock anyone’s socks off by any means, but this was a warm and appealing story that went down like a cup of slow brewed herbal tea.
The Wire: Season Four (DVD set). I started renting DVDs of The Wire last year, managing to get Christopher hooked as well. This week we finished watching season four, which both of us agree is the best yet. I loved this season’s focus on the education system (man, our schools are totally f—ed up), and the new cast of talented young actors really brightens up what was already a top-drawer ensemble cast. This is one amazing, gritty show, which makes me surprised that it wasn’t showered with Emmy awards when it was on HBO. Check out the Amazon page for some interesting “prequel” vignettes of the characters. Onward to Season Five …
Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon (2008). Considering that it focuses on a ’70s porn star, this was a sweet little documentary. Part of its appeal comes from current interviews with a silver-haired and chatty Jack Wrangler, nee John Robert Stillman, who rose to fame projecting a masculine image that contradicted gay stereotypes of that era. This film also served as a fascinating look into the world of ’70s gay porn (which I previously didn’t know much about — honest!) with several cool and campy clips and illuminating interviews with those who were there. Wrangler later crossed over to straight porn and turned heads by marrying an older woman, singer Margaret Whiting. What drives this film is the present-day Stillman’s own self-deprecating bemusement at the strange path his own life took (sadly, he died earlier this month).