Sunday, November 28, 2004

Finding Neverland

I have always been a fan of Peter Pan. When I was a graduate student living in Kensington, London in the mid-1990's, I made a literary pilgrimage one Sunday to pay homage to the boy who never grew up and the places that inspired the geography and magic of Neverland. I walked first to Kensington Gardens and then to nearby Hyde Park and the Serpentine to see the island of the lost boys and finally to the wistful statue of Peter Pan (and fairies) that Sir James Matthew Barrie donated in 1912. What a delightful afternoon it was; there were families with children everywhere. The statue and the setting evoke any and all of the renditions of Barrie's story and play about the boy Peter Pan

Creating Peter Pan

After one of his plays fails in London 1903, Barrie takes his Newfoundland    dog and goes to Kensington Gardens  to write a new one. There he meets the Llewellyn Davies family, four young boys and their widowed mother Sylvia, (Kate Winslett.) All the boys like James except Peter (Freddie Highmore), who still misses his deceased father. Barrie starts to visit their home, and meets them in the park to play and act out stories. He presents Peter with a journal so that he can use his own imagination and write stories, too. He does, and presents a play about St. Ursula to James and Sylvia.

James is married and rumors begin to circulate that his interest in Mrs. Davies is inappropriate, as are his attentions to the boys. James seems genuinely surprised by these accusations and says that they are only friends. Mrs. Davies’ mother, Emma, played by Julie Christie, disapproves of James as does Mary, James' wife. In fact, their marriage is already strained, and Mary starts seeing another man.

All the while, James is writing a new play about a boy who never wants to grow up and who lives in Neverland.

Themes of death, grief, loneliness and growing up

Finding Neverland is based on a year in the life of the Scots writer Sir J.M. Barrie from the demise of the play Little Mary in 1903 up until the time the play Peter Pan was first staged in 1904. The Davies family really existed and the characters in Peter Pan were certainly inspired by the boys and their mother. Barrie loved children and donated all the royalties for Peter Pan to a children's hospital in . The film is greatly entertaining and does have some serious themes such as death, grief, marital problems, loneliness – and that growing up means to care for others besides oneself. It is well-written, directed and "staged." If you love creativity, (especially if you are a writer who gets writer's block), and have an imagination that believes in fairies, you will enjoy Finding Neverland very much. Just remember to bring a hankie.

Johnny Depp does it again

Finding Neverland is based on the play by Allan Knee and directed by Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball). Johnny Depp plays J. M. Barrie so credibly that you forget he was that eccentric pirate Captain Jack Sparrow only last year in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. There's one thing about Johnny Depp that stands out as an actor: he is the person he portrays, unlike many actors who just play themselves in different movies. I had a film teacher once who said that the reason the fine actor Paul Muni who won an Oscar in 1935 for his role in The Life of Louis Pasteur, is almost forgotten today is because he disappeared into his roles so much that people didn't recognize him from film to film. I think Depp does the same thing, but there's no way you can forget him. Perhaps the celebrity machine is so well oiled today that the publicists won’t let us forget him anyway. Depp rightfully deserves all the acclaim. He really can act.

Keep an eye on Freddie Highmore as Peter, who will be seen next, also with Johnny Depp, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the remake of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.) Highmore gives an outstanding and consistent performance in Finding Neverland, well beyond the expectations of such a young child actor.

I see visions of Oscar.

(Only read the following after you have seen the film!)

How fictional is FINDING NEVERLAND?

The film runs pretty close to the facts - even when Barrie tells Sylvia about the death of his brother and how their mother hid away in her bedroom for months, making a lasting impression on James. Thus, Barrie always had "mothering" issues (see his brief and moving biography called Margaret Oglivie; it can be found online).The film evokes this pathos and explains the haunting loneliness that surrounds Barrie.

It’s interesting to research Barrie's life as well as that of the Davies children after the events depicted in the film conclude. James did become the boys' guardian after their mother died (there were really five boys, not four.) James actually met the Davies, however, when the father was still living (he died three years before the mother). He did not much approve of James' friendship with the family either. I think the grandmother in the film/play may stand in for Mr. Davies in the interest of time. Two of the boys died while young men, and Peter, a publisher, unfortunately took his own life in 1960. Most accounts say it is because, even though he cared for the boys and sent them all to Eton (the school Princes William and Harry attended), had cut them out of his will. No one seems to know why. The boys always consistently denied all rumors ofinappropriate behavior on the part of Barrie. Barrie, who was born in Kirriemuir, Scotland in 1860, was knighted, became a university rector and was close friends with Sir Conan Doyle and other literati of his times. He died in 1937.




Sunday, November 21, 2004

Christmas with the Kranks

Christmas with the Kranks will open in a few days starring Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis. It's based on John Grisham's 2001 novella, Skipping Christmas.

Tim Allen is Luther Krank and Curtis plays his wife, Nora. When their 23-year old daughter and only child, Blair, joins the Peace Corps and departs for Peru the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Luther realizes that he and Nora don't have to do the Christmas thing this year, and can just skip Christmas.

So he figures out that he and Nora spent more than $6000.00 on Christmas the year before and that they can take a Caribbean cruise for half the amount. He gets to the point where he wants to boycott Christmas. Nora agrees to take the cruise only when Luther agrees that they will give their usual donation to the church and the children's hospital.

The families of their Chicago-suburban neighborhood have a collective fit, however. Luther refuses to put up their Frosty on the roof, refuses to buy the police calendar, refuses to buy a Christmas tree from the Scouts. And he keeps running into and stepping on the big white cat that belongs to his neighbors across the street. Bev, the wife, has cancer and she is not doing well. E. Emmet Walsh plays her husband. He dislikes Luther because of his touchy relationship with his cat, and now even more because of Luther's cantankerous Christmas boycott.

And so on and so forth the film keeps building to the moment when Blair calls home from the Miami airport telling them she is bringing her boyfriend home (a young Peruvian doctor) so he can experience all their neighborhood and family traditions at Christmas. All of a sudden the cruise is off and Luther and Nora have to create Christmas, mend broken bridges and find Blair's favorite hickory honey ham in about eight hours. The neighborhood steps up to the plate and the action begins.

Without giving away the high point of the film, which is quite touching in a formulaic way, I will tell you the funniest (for me). When Nora finally gets her hands on that ham, a huge Mack  truck runs over it and turns it into "spam." (I lived in Guam for six months where the national food is Spam... and this scenario really made me laugh; imagine if SPAM had been written on the side of the truck or on a billboard; that's what I mean about the film not being funny enough; when I have to start writing in part of the script in my head....)

Overall, the film takes too long to get to Blair's phone call. Luther isn't really a very convincing Scrooge and I think they could have put both Tim Allen's and Jamie Lee Curtis' considerable comedic talents to much better use. I wasn't laughing enough - except for that darned smashed ham.

However, this is a nice film and a "family" film if by this your definition is "nothing offensive." I prefer to think of a family film as one that appeals to all ages; but this one really is for the more mature and financially comfortable Christmas audience that wants to kick back, relax and enjoy how a somewhat grumpy husband with a somewhat gormless wife face the empty nest at Christmas, and at the same time have a little fun and get a little inspiration at this blessed time of year.

Themes: generosity, community, family, grace, civility

(Names are always important in stories. Krank = kranky= krankenhaus = hospital in German. In otherwords, where you go when you have a complaint - or by extension, are a complainer. Enter Luther Krank.)


Mean Girls

Mean Girls is the latest in my catch-up program for films released earlier this year that I missed in the theater. Tina Fey, of Saturday Night Live, wrote the screenplay and acts in the film as a math teacher.

I have to admit at the outset that my benchmark for entertaining flicks about teen life is Amy Heckerling's 1995 film Clueless, that is an updated version of Jane Austin's Emma. Mean Girls is not as funny as Clueless and bears similarities to many teen flicks without actually repeating any of them. Though I think the film struggles for its identity (genre?), it has some sequences that reveal much truth about high school agony, and problems that plague teens such as eating disorders and consequences of alcohol.

What Mean Girls and Clueless have in common is that they are both about character and the consequences of gossip - Mean Girls in a much more blunt and serious fashion.

I didn't find Mean Girls as entertaining as I anticipated, but I think it's thoughtful and would provide teens and parents with much to talk about. (Certainly the parents in the film are insignificant as is common in movies aimed at teens.)

Good for Tina Fey - but I liked 13 Going on 30 better, too.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Motorcycle Diaries, The (Diarios de motocicleta)

The Motorcycle Diaries, is the story of a road trip taken by Ernesto "Che'" Guavera (Gael Garcia Bernal of El Crimen de Padre Amaro) and his friend Alberto Granada (Rodrigo de la Serna) in 1952. Their plan was to ride a motorcycle from Buenos Aires, around the southern most tip of South America and north to Venezuela in four months - arriving in time to celebrate Alberto's 30th birthday.

Che' Guavera is known as one of the major leaders of the Cuban revolution who was eventually murdered by the CIA in Bolivia in 1967. This story, based on the writings of the two main characters, is an interprative, minimalist approach to biographical filmmaking. We get to see the beauty of the South American landscape and experience the extreme discomforts of the journey of the two men (from motorcycle travel, to the machine's demise, to their walking and hitchhiking - and their running out of money), while witnessing Che's growing awareness of the oppression of the poor and indigeneous peoples of South America and his eventual decision to participate in their liberation.

I think it is an excellent film that does not preach, but let's us see what it means to listen and pay attention to the world around us, reflect and process this experience through journaling, enter into dialogue with one's companions or others and then to act .... We may not agree that Che' chose the "proper" approach to social change, but then things haven't changed all that much in South America and other parts of the world, have they? I think that in a very subtle way this film lets us see how post World War II economic expansion and globalization began to take root to the destruction of native peoples lives and cultures. Pope John Paul II, in his statement to the Synod of the Americas in 1997, focused on the principles of Catholic Social Teaching and considered both North and South America "one" continent with shared "social sins." And this comes almost 50 years after Che' and Alberto's road trip.

With freedom, comes responsibility for the lives and well-being of our brothers and sisters wherever they are.



Saturday, November 13, 2004

The Polar Express

I loved The Polar Express. Just saw it this morning, and I thought it was wonderful. It ranks very close to Pirates of the Caribbean for me, in that it was that kind of pure entertainment that makes a trip to the multiplex worthwhile and satisfying. The Polar Express is a different kind of entertainment that Pirates, but films like these are strong reminders of what Hollywood is capable of when all the creativity is generously poured into bringing stories like these to the screen for the enjoyment - and in this case, inspiration- of a broad audience (however North American and northern hemisphere that may be...)

By now everyone knows that Tom Hanks plays at least four parts in this amazingly animated film; sometimes the characters look almost ... real.

The story goes that a young boy is of the age when he starts to doubt the existence of Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve he is torn between believing or not. He even looks up the North Pole in his encyclopedia (so this is set before the age of computers!) and knows that it is a floating geographic place that could not sustain Santa's workshop.

Soon after he goes to bed, he hears a train outside and goes to investigate. The conductor invites him aboard, but he can't make up his mind. As the train leaves, though, he jumps on and joins other children on their way to the North Pole. He makes friends with a young girl, and a know-it-all kid annoys them. As they pass to the "other side of the tracks", they stop at a house without any decorations and a small boy, Billy, is standing outside. He decides not to board, but the hero of the story and the girl go back for him. Their trip to the North Pole is like a giant roller coaster ride - so if you like these, and are a fan of model trains, you will enjoy many aspects of The Polar Express.

They arrive at the North Pole just before the stroke of midnight ... and I would tell you what they find and but you'll just have to go and see it for yourself!

On the way to the North Pole, the hero-girl and Billy sing a gentle and heartfelt Christmas ballad that may bring a tear to your eye. The film knows that loneliness is the most difficult part of Christmas (Billy says that Christmas has never been much for him) and that friends and family can make all the difference in the world.

Expertly directed by Robert Zemeckis and based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg.

The Polar Express has Oscar potential.

It is not a religious film per se, but it is full of the gifts of the Spirit.

Certainly this is a family film, but very young children might find it a bit slow-going. However, it is an intelligent, beautifully crafted film and embraces the audience as it entertains and - inspires.



Cinderella Story, A

A Cinderella Story with Hilary Duff as the over-worked and ill-treated teen, is an updated 'tween version of the fairy tale, only for those who have strong teeth that won't melt from the sugar.

I just voted at (I gave it a 2 out of 10) and saw that viewers either loved it or hated it. Roughly 25% have it a 10 (excellent) and 25% gave it a 1 (awful) and all other votes scattered in between. It must have hit it's target market: girls loved it and parents - or a huge number of critics - hated it. After all, with Chad Michael Murray as Prince Charming and Jennifer Coolidge (remember, she was Paulette in Legally Bond) it had some entertainment value. To me it was just a showcase for Miss Duff. I enjoyed Drew Barrymore's Ever After: A True Cinderella Story much more, not least of which was the presence of Anjelica Huston as the evil step-mother.  

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story

Hi everyone!

At long last I am back from my trip to Rome and my 30 Day Retreat. It was awesome, especially the silence. Silence is a gift.

I went to see two new films today, and I will be writing about them, but first let me play "catch up" once again on recent films that I missed (blessedly) in theaters, but caught up with on the long flights to and from Rome.

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story was one big bark, like that of a dog howling under a full moon and starving. I thought that Vince Vaughn's acting as Peter, the owner of the gym about to go under financially, was so laid back that he was almost horizontal. The adolescent emphasis on male body parts isn't lost on anyone, least of all Ben Stiller as White Goodman, the wealthy owner of the chain of gyms about to buy up Peter's when it goes into foreclosure. Enter Kate, the lawyer for the bank who takes sides with Peter and his den of kind-hearted,  delusional athletes, especially Steve, who thinks he is a pirate and dresses and acts accordingly. Arrrgh!

Members of both gyms end up battling it out at a dodgeball contest in Vegas. Guess who wins?

For a film that had to be really low budget, there was one part that I thought was very thoughtful and gave me something good to take away from the quasi-agony of the viewing. When Steve the Pirate goes missing, I think it is the character Justin (or Gordon - can't recall) who doesn't even realize they have had a play-pirate on their team. Steve shows up just before the finale, hair cut and shaved - unrecognizeable to all except Justin who calls out, "There's Steve." He never saw the outward trappings of the pirate that Steve hid behind, but only the real person. Nice touch to an otherwise forgettable film.