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Flick Clique: January 16-22

poster_howgreenHow Green Was My Valley (1941). Another in my effort to see previously unseen Best Picture Oscar winners, this sentimental John Ford directed opus of the goings-on in a large Welsh mining family has lost a bit of its street cred over the years, but it’s still a magnificent achievement. This one beat out Citizen Kane that year — comparing the two is a basic apples and oranges proposition. Orson Welles’ game-changing pseudo-bio certainly holds up better today, but How Green‘s comfortable pro-family, pro-union fable fits better as a reflection of the time it was made. The film is narrated by the now adult character of the youngest son in said mining family, and as embodied by Roddy McDowall he is the stand-in for us as the primary observer. What follows is a rather episodic tale as the family deals with harsh conditions in the mines, big sis Maureen O’Hara falls for preacher Walter Pidgeon, McDowall starts school and joins the mine’s workforce, and parents Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood keep a stern eye over the whole flock. Though it has some corny elements (the townsfolk’s perfectly angelic singing voices, for example), this was quite a heartwarming and wonderful film. The fact that they built an entire village nestled in a Malibu canyon is impressive enough, but what sticks with me is the performances. Crisp and Allgood as the parents both deserved Oscars (only Crisp won); best of all is Roddy McDowall, one of the more outstanding kid performers ever on screen. The sheer expressiveness on his face from scene to scene is great. I suppose he didn’t become hammy until adulthood (having just tuned in a scenery-chewing guest bit he did on TV’s Buck Rogers, I can heartily concur that one).
Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (2000) and Lebanon (2009). The horrors of war, addressed in two different films we caught this week. 2000’s Best Documentary Oscar winner Into the Arms of Strangers sat comfortably on our Netflix streaming queue until we noticed that they were getting ready to remove it (really, I love watching films this way, but what’s with Netflix adding and deleting stuff in seemingly willy nilly fashion?). Elegantly narrated by Judi Dench, the film tells of the extraordinarily coordinated efforts to transport Jewish children from dangerous, Nazi-occupated areas to the relatively safe Great Britain. The children go through a variety of experiences in the U.K., being accepted into loving families, sometimes getting treated like domestics, feeling homesickness or being oddly displaced once they’re returned to their home countries. Woven throughout the film are wonderfully evocative remembrances from the children themselves. At the time the film was made, the participants were of retirement age, having an inner serenity and grateful that they survived such tumult. I’m glad I saw this. Moving forward, recent Venice Film Festival honoree Lebanon tells of how the 1982 Israeli/Lebanese conflict affects a platoon as they try to escape the war-torn city, focusing on a group of frightened young men piloting a claustrophobic army tank (seemingly constructed with duct tape and lotsa hope). This was a very affecting and well-done film, somewhat poky near the end but compelling all the same. The battle scenes seemed a bit stagy to me, but I thought the cast was uniformly good and the tank setting (where 80% of the scenes take place) had a wonderfully grimy feel. P.S. The film’s poster design is a giant spoiler reveal.
Next Stop Wonderland (1998). Scrappy indie comedy is pleasant enough whenever it isn’t wallowing in ’90s indie clichés. The film opens with Bostonian Hope Davis discovering that her hippie radical boyfriend (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is moving out. Still trying to cope with being single, she becomes the subject of an alluring personal ad placed by her mother (Holland Taylor in a great bit). The ad attracts a variety of odd men, including a group of friends playing a mean-spirited prank. The one guy who seems perfect for Davis, Alan Gelfant’s plumber and aspiring oceanographer, seems to elude her until … I rented this one mostly for Hope Davis, and she’s pretty good in this otherwise uninspired film. With her baggy eyes, stringy hair and blasé attitude, she embodies the image of the anti-romantic heroine she’s playing. I also thought the supporting cast was very appealing, even when the story goes into ludicrous Nora Ephronlike territory near the conclusion. The vintage Bossa Nova soundtrack was also a gem. Strictly okay, but it sure beats anything with the names “Aniston” or “Heigl” attached.
Tropic Thunder (2008). Another film that C. rented based on a co-worker’s recommendation. This one opens terrifically with fake trailers starring the actor characters we later on get better acquainted with: past-his-prime action megastar Ben Stiller, chameleonlike Aussie thespian Robert Downey Jr., and gross-out comedian Jack Black (his parody of Eddie Murphy’s Krank flicks is probably the most biting, satirical moment here). The trio are joined by an egotistal rapper (Brandon T. Jackson) and an eager young dude (Jay Baruchel) to make a serious action-war movie in Vietnam. Things get ugly, however, when they are dropped in the jungle with mercenaries who apparently forgot it’s no longer 1972. The film springs to a fast-paced, bitingly hilarious start in the first half hour or so, but once the principals get lost the project loses its footing. There were certain things I enjoyed a lot, such as Baruchel’s geeky idealist (the only somewhat human character) and Matthew McConaughey as Stiller’s smarmy agent. Mostly, though, the film demonstrates how dispiriting and desperate-to-please current comedies are. Stop trying so hard, fellas!

2 Thoughts on “Flick Clique: January 16-22

  1. Cristiane on January 25, 2011 at 7:15 pm said:

    Funny – I just saw How Green Was My Valley for the first time in many years recently, too. I agree with your critique – it’s gotten such a bad rap for beating out Citizen Kane at the Oscars that it’s hard to see it for what it is – a solid, sentimental and very, very good movie. And yes, Roddy McDowell was a terrific child actor – on a par with Margaret O’Brien. I saw it on the Fox Movie Channel, which is obviously Fox’s attempt to be TCM. It’s as though they said, “Hey, we’ve got this HUGE inventory of movies – let’s choose about 100 of them and play them over and over and over.” I mean, I’m fond of those cheesy Betty Grable/Alice Faye musicals, but I don’t need to see them a million times. And they don’t have TCM’s phenomenal interstitial content – or Robert Osborne, for that matter.

  2. We had Fox Movie Channel a few years back, very briefly before our satellite provider inexplicably upped it to the “pay movie channels” tier. Very disappointing and repetitive, considering that they have a somewhat deep catalog. And, yeah, the between movies stuff was nothing but shallow promos for current Fox movies.

    At least Fox make a little effort to keep their older films out there – unlike evil Universal and Paramount. Boo hiss!!

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