Tag Archives: British

Have Yourself A Little “Arthur Christmas”

How’s your December been so far? Mine’s been a mixed bag, to put it mildly. First some minor car trouble. Then a head cold for the hubby and sinusitis for me. Followed by a spike in “crappier-than-thou” behavior that seemed to crop up everywhere, from national politics to the workplace to our weekday commutes. All pesky, but nothing we couldn’t handle. Then the news from Sandy Hook Elementary. Followed by a string of local almost-copycat incidents, ranging from the wretchedly immature to the truly frightening. What is there to do, except spend some extra time with loved ones, put some change in the bell-ringer’s bucket, and re-read Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells” several times, hoping that that last verse is true?

Well, try giving yourself a holiday gift by putting “Arthur Christmas” into your DVD player, or your online movie queue. It’s inventive, funny, sweet and beautifully made.

For me, it provided a refreshing break from a weary month that seemed beset by a bizarre trio of luchadores: Shrieking Commercialism, Contrived Sentiment and True-Life Horror. Why “Arthur Christmas” is not more widely known mystifies me. Here’s some of what it packs into a mere hour and 40 minutes: an immensely detailed concept of how Santa Claus’ massive enterprise works, with glimpses into its past; a goofball pair of Christmas slippers; and a sly and affectionate portrait of three generations of a decidedly imperfect family. All delivered with Aardman Animations’ unique approach: less treacle than Disney/Pixar/DreamWorks, with every bit as much real humor and originality.

Fellow wonks, I think movies are powerful. Whether a flick is great, so-so or awful, when it’s viewed at the right time by the right audience (whether that audience is one person, or a crowd), it can inspire change. So I wish I could tell you that “Arthur Christmas” has the ability to make all the misguided in this world straighten up, fix whatever messes they’ve made, and start treating other human beings decently. But even the most ardent believer in the power of cinema would be wrong to make those claims. So it’s more in the spirit of lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness that I’ll be reaching for my DVD shelf, to move “Elf” and “Polar Express” (whose animation style is starting to look slightly more creepy with each passing year) to make room for “Arthur Christmas”. Hope whatever winter holiday(s) you celebrate(d) is/are (a) good one(s) for you, and here’s to 2013.

P.S. The song that provides the basis for the title of this entry was written by Ralph Blane, a fellow Okie. It’s one of my favorites, especially the versions that don’t shy away from that last verse: “If the Fates allow … Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” Doesn’t get much realer than that.

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Dark Angles: The Visions of William Cameron Menzies

Dark Angles: The Visions of William Cameron MenziesIt took a Martian invasion to make me aware of William Cameron Menzies. I watched “Invaders from Mars”, and the look of that movie kept reminding me of German Expressionist films like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”.

Menzies was both director and production designer on “Invaders…” Starkly chiaroscuro lighting, abrupt camera angles that deliberately unsettle the viewer, and actors filmed from below so that they loom up into the frame are all hallmarks of his style.

If you’ve seen “Gone with the Wind”, you’ve seen Menzies’ work. The title of “production designer”* was created by David O. Selznick to describe Menzies’ contribution to that epic film. His Expressionist leanings are toned down for “Gone…”, but you can see traces of them, especially in the scenes of Atlanta burning.

Menzies’ style seems to work best in genres like science-fiction (Things to Come) and thrillers (The Maze). These types of movies needed stark visual drama, and often highly-stylized costumes and sets, to put an audience in the right mood. A more lighthearted example is The Thief of Bagdad. Everything in this movie is more curvilinear and organic, and almost every surface is covered with a riot of fanciful, Middle-Eastern-inspired decoration.

Menzies sometimes let his stylings overpower the living, speaking, moving actors who had to inhabit the worlds he created. For example, “Things to Come” is a delight for fans of sci-fi and modernist style. But the heavy emphasis on visuals reduces the actors to stiff figures required to deliver their lines while locked inside the sets, costumes and camera angles that are really the stars of the film.

Once you’re familiar with Menzies’ style, you’ll start seeing his influence in lots of classic 20th-century films. And don’t miss David Bordwell’s entertaining and thoroughly-researched essay on Menzies. Professor Bordwell wonders, “Why has nobody written a book about him?” Good question. Until that book comes along, this essay is a terrific place to start.

* A production designer works with a film’s cinematographer and director to determine how that film will look. He or she determines the visual style that will create the right mood for the film, supporting the plot and ideas the film needs to convey. Typically this includes providing visual references (like photos and scale models) to the rest of the production team, and then translating those references into reality, once his or her concepts for the look of the film are approved.

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Tippecanoe and Movies, Too

Fed up with politicians’ monkeyshines? Can’t wait til the elections in November are finally over? Is that what’s botherin’ you, Punky?

Well, you’ve come to the right blog. Movies that point out the absurdities of elections, governments and political processes have become one of my favorite mini-genres. Blame it on Watergate: that was the big story around the time I was old enough to start paying any attention at all to any kind of news. Or maybe it was all those evenings watching “Laugh-In” with my politically-astute mom when I was a cine-tot. For whatever reason, to me real-life political topics almost inevitably swerve into the realm of farce.

So if you’re in the mood to just turn all those rascals out, here are a few appropriate flicks:

“In the Loop”: Be prepared to turn on the subtitles, and possibly stop and re-watch a few scenes, to get the hang of this one. Your efforts will be rewarded with hilarious dialogue, particularly the tapestries of high-speed, inspired Scottish profanity woven by Malcolm Tucker (played by Peter Capaldi).

“Idiocracy”: Imagine a world in which people believe that irrigating farms with Gatorade is a good idea, and the president’s name is Frito. Depending on your mood, this one will either console you by showing how much dumber the human race could be, or depress you by showing how much dumber the human race is likely to become.

“Dr. Strangelove”: OK, confession time: this post is really just an excuse for me to write about my favorite flick of all time*. “Strangelove” spells out all you need to do: just keep your bodily fluids pure, and never let the Russkies see the Big Board.

“C.S.A.”: What if the Confederates won the American Civil War? This one is horrifying and hilarious by turns. Whether this highly-detailed alternate history seems plausible to you or not, it’s at least thought-provoking.

“The Mouse on the Moon”:  You’re a tiny mythical country in need of a spot of cash for some new plumbing. What do you do? Hit up a couple of superpowers for the money by pitting them against each other, of course. Whimsical and dry as only the British seem to be able to do, with nods to Jules Verne and Georges Méliès in the look of the British rocket’s interior and the moon’s surface.

“Duck Soup”: Hail, hail, Freedonia! When disputes arise with your neighbor, do like Harpo Marx does: take off your shoes, roll up your pants, climb into that neighbor’s lemonade dispenser and make bicycling motions with your legs. (This is probably what really goes on behind closed doors at the U.N.)

“The Juche Idea”: If Christopher Guest made a film about North Korea, it might look like this. This mockumentary about a South Korean video artist in the land of Kim Jong Il includes the subtitle, “Your video ‘Dentures of Imperialism’ seems underdeveloped. It doesn’t quite make sense, and I’m not sure what the point is.” Well, that makes two of us, sunshine. If you have insight in to this one, readers, feel free to elucidate in a comment!

“Election”: This is what happens when you mess with destiny by trying to rig a high school’s election for class president. Reese Witherspoon‘s wide-eyed, straitlaced delivery of the phrase “It’s a travesty!” is just one of the delights of this cynical little flick.

“Four Lions”: Four dedicated but dimwitted Islamic fundamentalists decide to make a statement that London can’t ignore. What could go wrong? You’ll have a hard time getting this one out of your head. It’s an unsettling mix of the broadest British slapstick, and truly shocking bursts of menace and tragedy. Whatever humor remains by the end has turned an absurdist shade of utter pitch-black. (Watching with subtitles turned on is the only way to understand what’s going on in some of the scenes, especially those which layer Arabic insults on top of 21st-century UK slang.)

*Depending on the day, my favorite flick alternates between “Strangelove” and “Sunset Boulevard”.

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“Police Academy” vs. the Sea Cucumber

(or, “Flicks for when you’re not feelin’ so good”)

"Police Academy" vs. the Sea Cucumber

What movies can you recall watching while you were sick, injured, or otherwise temporarily incapacitated? Are there any favorites that you summon up on Netflix, or slide into the DVD player, when you start feeling lousy?

The title of this entry comes from an experience the Cinema Wonk had last August. My husband and I were trying a new Asian restaurant. The entree’ I chose included something called a “sea cucumber“. Less than 24 hours later, I was profoundly regretting my choice during several rather urgent trips to the bathroom. “The Revenge of the Sea Cucumber” enjoyed an exclusive run, shall we say, for about two days. About the only activity I could manage between pit stops was watching TV. And brother, I was not picky about what I viewed. I’m pretty sure I watched all of one of the “Police Academy” movies for the first time in my life. Don’t ask me which one. Even though that series of movies came out just as my cinematic diet was expanding beyond Disney and the oldies shown on TBS, somehow I’d missed seeing more than a few minutes of any of them. The one that saw me through the sea-cucumber siege included a guy being tricked into washing his hair while in the nude in view of several other people, and the guy who could imitate all kinds of sounds using only his mouth. Also Steve Guttenberg was in it. (Does this narrow it down?)

All of which made this movie a perfect fit for my gastrointestinal haze. Any critical faculties I have were not just dulled; they were reduced to the level of a kindergartener’s. And that kindergartener was not the brightest kid in her class, either.

While I’ve been writing this blog post, I’ve been trying to recall any other movies that made the perfect accompaniments to infirmity. And for a cinema wonk, it’s surprising that only two movie-related experiences come to mind. One is deciding that the only advantage to getting a sore throat was that I could sound more like Lauren Bacall for a few days. The second came during a recent mild cold, which seemed to respond to black-and-white British comedies. Dozing off while Peter Sellers and friends outsmarted Lionel Jeffries in “Two-Way Stretch“, and later Terry-Thomas and his teeth and a flock of spinsters (including the marvelously-named Elspeth Duxbury) contrived to steal any furs not nailed down in “Make Mine Mink“, proved very soothing for body aches and sinus congestion.

I guess this lack of sick-flick memories is good, because it means I haven’t had to spend very many long, difficult periods in bed. My only two really long periods of recovering – chickenpox and after having my wisdom teeth pulled – happened before the VCR Fairy visited our house. And the movie offerings on cable that were age-appropriate were pretty limited at those times. (During the wisdom-tooth convalescence, I do recall waking up during the Pat Benatar video for “Love Is A Battlefield”, and panicking because I thought this meant I had somehow ended up in the afterlife.) More recent sick days have been eased with DVDs, Netflix and a bigger range of movie options (and the freedom to watch R-rated stuff, without a parent censoring). So all those sick days run together. Except for that ferocious sea cucumber.

So, fellow wonks, what do you prescribe for the next time Dame Stomachache or Good Sir Sinus Infection comes a-callin’?

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