Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain


Sometimes, having it all isn’t enough.

(2021) Documentary (Focus) Anthony Bourdain, Ottavia Busia Bourdain, David Chang, Helen M. Cho, Josh Homme, Eric Ripert, John Lurie, David Choe, Morgan Fallon, Doug Quint, Lydia Tenaglia, Christopher Collins, Tom Vitale, Philippe Lajunie, Alison Mosshart. Directed by Morgan Neville

 

It is not unusual that we feel we know those television personalities whose career give us an idea of their temperament and style. We spend hours and hours with them; isn’t that a form of knowing them? Not always. I’ve read many comments by people who viewed this documentary about the late travel/food program host, former chef and bestselling author Anthony Bourdain that “Tony would have liked this,” or “Tony would have approved of that,” despite the fact that they didn’t know him and likely never stood face to face with the guy. This, even after those who DID know him say at least a couple of times during the film that television Tony was a different person than off-camera Tony.

The movie, from Oscar-winning documentary auteur Morgan Neville, chronicles his rise from a dishwasher in New York to a cook to a chef who was convinced by the wife of a friend who worked for a publishing firm that his writing style would sell a lot of books. Thus came Kitchen Confidential, a trailblazing non-fiction look at what goes on in the kitchen of high-end New York brasserie. Bourdain, who had managed to kick a heroin habit, but merely transferred his addiction from one thing to another.

When TV producers Christopher Collins and Lydia Tenaglia heard that Bourdain was planning a follow-up book in which he would travel the globe, experiencing new cuisines and new cultures, they knew it would make a great TV show and so it did, and A Cook’s Tour became a hit. This led to No Reservations on the Travel Channel, and then his final show, Parts Unknown on CNN. We see how quickly Bourdain took to Vietnam, falling in love with the country and its food, joined on that episode by his old Les Halles boss Philippe Lajunie. We see him exploring the France of his boyhood with his brother, and later with his close friend Eric Ripert. We see how affected he was by conditions in pre-earthquake Haiti, and the amazing episode in Beirut that was interrupted by the beginning of a war that devastated the capital.

We also see the darker side of Bourdain; his relentless personality, the tantrums he throws when things aren’t going the way he thinks they should be, his occasional dark moods. We also hear from Bourdain himself that he yearns for a “normal” family life which he briefly had with his second wife Ottavia and his daughter Arielle, but his brutal travel schedule made that all but impossible. As his relationship with Ottavia ended, he took up with actress/director Asia Argento (daughter of horror legend Dario), and his addiction seemed to transfer to Asia. When she came out as a victim of Harvey Weinstein, Bourdain went all-in with #MeToo, ending some long-term friendships over things that had been said or done decades earlier (the film doesn’t mention that Argento herself was accused of sexual assault shortly after Bourdain passed away).

If there is a villain in this piece, it is Argento, at least in the eyes of those close to Bourdain and Neville. She directs some episodes of Parts Unknown and disagreements with her leads to the dismissal of a long-time camera operator for Bourdain, an action very out of character for the notoriously loyal host. But tabloid reports of Argento carrying on with another man, leading Bourdain to explode to one of his producers, “A little discretion, maybe?” in disgust days before Bourdain hung himself in a hotel room in Alsace, his body discovered by Ripert who doesn’t talk publicly about the incident.

Bourdain is barely a presence in the last half hour of the movie. We see a thousand yard stare, Bourdain glowering at the camera. Mostly, that portion of the movie is about his friends and family who break down, the wound still fresh two years (three as the film is released) after his death on June 8, 2018. Having had a close friend who took their own life, I can say that even a decade after she passed I still feel her absence keenly.

For some portions of the film, Neville recreated Bourdain’s voice using a Deepfake A.I. program. In those instances, the A.I. was using e-mails and other sources of Bourdain’s written correspondence, but still some found it to be skirting the line ethically. Bourdain’s widow, Ottavia Busia, firmly denies having given Neville permission to re-create her late husband’s voice after Neville told GQ magazine that he had received permission from her. Some have looked at this as a blurry ethical line; I suppose it’s no worse than staging a scene for a documentary, but at least those dramatic re-creations tend to be announced in the credits, which is something Neville should have done here.

The movie doesn’t dwell on the suicide so much as on the way Bourdain changed the lives of those who knew him, and on how all of those who watched his shows viewed travel. If there’s one thing Bourdain taught me, it was the importance of experiencing things as immersively as possible. When you go to a place, don’t limit yourself to all the tourist locations, the chain restaurants. Truly see a place, how the locals live, and eat what they eat. Travel, as Bourdain has said many times, changes us.

I don’t claim to have known Bourdain at all, other than what I saw of him on TV – and I did watch his shows, as a travel junkie and a foodie. I loved his acerbic wit, his self-deprecating snarkiness and his brilliantly descriptive narration. He was unlike anyone else on TV in that he didn’t seem to give a crap about what he was supposed to be like. He just did things the way he thought they ought to be done. Sadly, he had demons that haunted him throughout his life – I wouldn’t be surprised if he was undiagnosed bipolar, frankly – and never seemed to find the happiness that he yearned for. Maybe that’s the real tragedy of Anthony Bourdain.

REASONS TO SEE: Lots of amazing footage. Clearly an emotional subject for his friends two years after his death.
REASONS TO AVOID: Towards the end of the film, Bourdain is less of a presence.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title of the film comes from a Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers song.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Fin

Free Trip to Egypt


One great stone face and another.

(2019) Documentary (Kindness) Tarek Mounib, Brian Kopilec, Ellen Decker, Adam Saleh, Terry Decker, Katie Appledorn, Jenna Day, Jason Reynolds, Marc Spalding, Amr Madkor, Ahmed Hassan, Salma Salem, Mohammed Ragab, Asmaa Gamal, Tom Appeldorn, Mark Decker, Nevine Madkor. Directed by Ingrid Serban

 

We live in a deeply divided country that has in many ways become hard right and hard left. There is a segment of our society which was deeply affected by 9/11 and continues to bear the scars of that terrible day even now. Their belief about Muslims, spurred by right-leaning news sources, is that most of the Muslim population of the rest of the world are largely terrorists and those who aren’t are terrorist sympathizers. They believe in President Trump’s agenda of excluding immigration from Muslim countries and maybe, to a certain extent, of deporting Muslims living here back to the Middle East.

Tarek Mounib, a Canadian entrepreneur of Egyptian descent, found himself very disturbed by this attitude. While working in Switzerland, he had an epiphany; why not take some Americans who have this mindset to Egypt, have them hang out with real Egyptians and see if it changes their world view. He thought if he paid for all expenses for such a trip, that he could maybe get a few people to go.

At first, he went directly to what he thought would be the motherlode; a Trump rally in Louisville, Kentucky. There he met Brian, an ex-Marine with a yen for travel who agreed to go for the experience. Two of his friends, Jason and Jenna, both evangelical Christians, also agreed to go – in Jason’s case, hoping he could use the opportunity to make a few Egyptians see the light. Mounib also got Mark, an African-American police officer working at the rally to agree to go although of all those who ended up taking the trip he seemed to be the least prejudiced of them all.

Other means of recruiting others didn’t work so well. It wasn’t until Mounib appeared on a nationally syndicated radio talk show that he finalized his line-up; single mom Katie who had deep-seeded issues with the way women are treated in the Islamic faith, and elderly couple Eileen and Terry, both of whom had become xenophobic after 9/11. Eileen, who confessed she had marched in the Sixties for racial equality, had realized that she was a racist and hated herself for it but couldn’t find a way out of the vicious circle, especially when their only son Mark took a job in Saudi Arabia.

Mounib paired the travelers with Egyptians who would spend the day with him and in addition to taking them to the usual tourist sights like the Cairo Museum and the Pyramids, also had meals with them and introduced them to friends and family. Most of them are well-paired; for example, Jenna and Jason are paired with a large Egyptian family; Mark with a jovial overweight Egyptian who is more pro-Trump than most of the Americans; Eileen and Terry are paired with a cinematographer and Kate with a female activist. Sadly, we don’t get to know the Egyptians nearly as well as the Americans. I think that might have helped the movie make its point more powerfully.

There are some awkward moments; the group including their Egyptian hosts are taken to a Zar healing ritual, both the evangelicals and their host family are greatly disturbed at what they see on the Muslim side as a perversion of Islam and on the Evangelical side as paganism. An odd place to find common ground, but these are odd times.

This is the kind of movie that we all need to see but especially those who feel, as many of the travelers initially do, that the world is an us versus them type of place and that there is an unconquerable divide between the Muslim world and ours. Not everyone is transformed by this experience who goes – Jason ends up trying to convert Mounib which I found a bit amusing – but there are at least some interesting discussions. Jenna ends up admitting that if heaven turned out to be a place without Christ, she would rather go to Hell. That’s pretty powerful when you think about the ramifications of it.

There is a coda as the filmmakers follow some of the participants well after the trip is over. Two of the participants were truly transformed by their experience (and you can probably guess who just by reading this review) and when a momentous event occurs, we truly see how completely that person had changed. It’s the kind of tug on the heartstrings moment that will leave even the most jaded moviegoer a bit misty-eyed.

Too often we emphasize the differences between cultures while ignoring the similarities. At the end of the day we are all just people, making the best of things in a world that is impossibly hard to navigate at times. We are all just fellow travelers on the same road and maybe when we boil it down that way, then little details like how we worship God or where we live or what we eat or the color of our skin ceases to matter much. The quickest way to heaven’s gates is through an open heart.

REASONS TO SEE: A strong and vital project with some truly powerful moments. There’s an unexpected coda. Transformative in many ways. Love that it emphasizes the similarities of cultures rather than the differences.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t spend enough time letting us get to know the Egyptians.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was timed to coincide with Cunningham’s centennial.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American History X
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
For the Birds

Copenhagen (2014)


Riding off into the sunset, 21st century Europe-style.

Riding off into the sunset, 21st century Europe-style.

(2014) Drama (Scorched Films) Gethin Anthony, Frederikke Dahl Hansen, Sebastian Armesto, Julie Christiansen, Olivia Grant, Mille Dinesen, Martin Hestbaek, Silja Eriksen Jensen, Gordon Kennedy, Helene Kuhn, Tamzin Merchant, Baard Owe, Asbjorn Krogh Nissen, Preven Ravn, Zaki Nobel Mehabil, Sebastian Bull Sarning, Miriam Yeager. Directed by Mark Raso

Florida Film Festival 2014

Travel allows us to see new places and gain new perspectives. It also allows us to completely be ourselves – or completely reinvent ourselves. Then again, what we do depends on what we’re travelling for.

William (Anthony) is a thoroughly unpleasant sort. 28 years old, he is only interested in getting laid, getting drunk and doing what he wants when he wants. He respects nobody and likes nobody except for maybe his friend Jeremy (Armesto) whom he’s travelling with, along with Jeremy’s girlfriend Jennifer (Grant) whom William thoroughly dislikes and quite frankly, doesn’t want her around on this trip that was just supposed to be him and Jeremy.

They’re in Copenhagen and it’s not by accident nor is it for the tourist attractions. William needs to find his grandfather to give him a letter that his late father wrote and asked William to give to him if he ever made it out there. Finding granddad will be a problem, especially when Jennifer, tired of the abuse, finally bails and takes Jeremy with her, much to William’s disgust.

Fortunately, an employee at the hotel – Effy (Hansen) – is willing to help and even though William is rude to her initially, he realizes that he needs her to translate (he doesn’t speak a word of Danish) and help him navigate the city to find his grandfather.

But all work makes William a dull boy and Effy takes him out on a number of adventures in Denmark. William is beginning to fall for the free-spirited girl and Effy clearly feels a strong attraction towards him. The brakes are put on though when William discovers that she’s just 14 years old. A mature 14 but 14 nonetheless. That’s a no-no even in Europe.

This is Canadian-born Mark Raso’s first feature and he shows a good deal of promise. This was one of those rare films that you can’t really predict what’s going to happen next. That’s a by-product of really good writing (also Raso) as well as confident directing. Yeah, there are parts of this that are really dark but there are some really funny moments as well.

Raso filmed this in Copenhagen with a mostly Danish crew and he does a great job of really giving us a sense of the city, not just of the tourist areas although there’s a really lovely scene filmed late at night at the iconic Little Mermaid statue in the harbor. We get a sense of the daily life of the people who live there and a sense of their values, their lifestyles and their sense of humor. I’m not sure if Raso spent much time in Copenhagen but clearly what time he did spend there he used wisely; he’s clearly a keen observer. His cinematographer, Alan Poon, clearly is as well – we get some really gorgeous and unique views of the city and environs.

Hansen is a real find. Although playing a 14-year-old, she was 19 years old at the time of filming and she captures the mindset of a 14-year-old girl nicely, albeit one wise and mature beyond her years. As the film goes on, we discover that Effy has some issues as well and we get to see the layers of her personality gradually revealed. While some of that is clever direction on Raso’s part, it is mostly just Hansen doing a bang-up job.

Anthony has a more thankless role with William, a guy that you’ll be convinced after ten minutes that this is a guy who must get punched in the face regularly. Even though he’s pretty good looking, it’s impossible to imagine that he could get laid regularly, as portrayed here. I can’t imagine that a woman would want to spend long enough with him to get her clothes off, but that’s just my take. Women do make some strange choices in bed partners sometimes and William can be charming when he needs to be, but that charm rarely lasts long. It’s to Anthony’s credit that he never tries to make William sympathetic; even when he’s starting to soften up and let Effy in, William is still a massive prick.

What makes this movie even more memorable is the dynamic between Effy and William. Quite frankly, some are going to be uncomfortable with it and even I have to admit to a couple of moments of squirming in my seat but all in all it is handled quite well and with a great deal of sensitivity. That doesn’t mean we don’t soon realize that these are two people who are really good for each other. Both of them have dysfunctional families bordering on the psychotic in places, although William does take home the prize in that department.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Raso views the city with a great deal of affection and we do at the same time get an insider’s perspective as well as an outsider’s. That’s unique and invaluable and I wound up leaving the film feeling I knew the city of Copenhagen just a little bit better, but this is no travelogue. The real reason for seeing this movie is for the compelling relationship between Effy and William and the dynamic performances of the actors who play them.

REASONS TO GO: Keeps the viewer guessing. Fine performance by Hansen who has some serious star quality.

REASONS TO STAY: Relationship between Effy and William may make some uncomfortable. William can be a truly unpleasant jerk to spend time with.

FAMILY VALUES:  Adult situations, some sensuality, drinking and smoking, plenty of foul language and a little violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anthony is best-known for his role as Renly Baratheon in the hit HBO series Game of Thrones.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Midnight in Paris

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Woman Power commences!

Offshoring


OffshoringTraditionally as April turns into May and after the Florida Film Festival has turned out the lights for the year, Cinema365 likes to do what we like to describe as a mini-festival. We call it Offshoring and it is all about movies that come from places other than the good old U.S. of A.

This year we have two films that screened at the Florida Film Festival as we continue our coverage of that event as well as films from a variety of nations; this year our five films will cover Thailand, China, Australia, France and Poland. They range from action films to dramas to comedies and cover a variety of styles. Not all of them will be easy to find (although you may be able to catch a couple of them on cable or through Netflix or other streaming services) but all will have something worthwhile about their point of view that may cause you to re-examine yours.

Hear at Cinema365 World Domination HQ we’ve always considered foreign films a means of travelling without leaving, ways of peaking in on other cultures and hopefully learning something about them in the process. Hopefully you’ll do the same when you view these films we have lined up for you. The festival begins tomorrow and runs for five days before we return to our regularly scheduled programming, which will include reviews of theatrical releases like Bears, Transcendence, The Zero Theorem and The Railway Man among others. We’ll also be publishing our Summer Preview in the next few days as well as our monthly Four-Warned with a more detailed look at what’s coming out in May in theaters across the country as well as in some cases on VOD or in limited or local release.

It’s gonna be a great summer at the movies and before we get started with that, let’s take a little vacation around the world. Hope you’ll join us.

Bernie (2011)


 

Bernie

Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black canoodle, East Texas style.

(2011) True Crime Dramedy (Millennium) Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey, Rick Dial, Veronica Orosco, Brandon Smith, Tommy G. Kendrick, Juli Erickson, Mona Lee Fultz, Sonny Carl Davis, Richard Robichaux, Matthew Greer. Directed by Richard Linklater

 

Truth can be stranger than fiction, but truth is also fairly subjective. Often our judgment when it comes to truth can be clouded by our emotions; even when presented with incontrovertible facts we can still cling to our beliefs that color our objectivity.

Bernie Tiede (Black) was one of the most well-liked men in Carthage, a small town in East Texas. He’s a pillar of his community; a lay preacher at his Methodist church and possessed of an angelic voice. He is generous with both his time and with what small trinkets he can afford to buy on his meager salary. As an assistant funeral director at the local funeral home, he is considered one of the best at what he does in the Lone Star state – taking the corpse of the deceased and making it presentable for the funeral. He is known for being sweet and comforting to widows and checking up on them after the funeral service.

One such is Marjorie Nugent (MacLaine), the widow of a wealthy oil man. She is not the most well-liked person in town – in fact, she’s pretty much despised. She’s cold, rude and mean, sometimes just for the sake of being mean. At first, she refuses Bernie’s friendship like you’d refuse a door-to-door rap CD salesman. However, as he is persistent and genuinely sweet she relents. Soon the two of them are inseparable.

They go traveling together, first class, all on Marjorie’s dime. Bernie takes her to the theater, classical music performances, art openings and other cultural events. Marjorie sees the popularity that her new friend enjoys and may well be intrigued by the sensation of being liked whereas Bernie gets to experience what money can do for a lifestyle.

Sadly, Marjorie has a jealous streak and she wants Bernie’s attention literally 24-7, and her cold, mean nature starts leading her to assigning him humiliating things to do, while constantly belittling him and berating him if he is not waiting on her hand and foot. Bernie begins to feel trapped as he has resigned his position at the funeral home to become Marjorie’s assistant and business manager with access to her funds, aggravating her obsequious stockbroker (Robichaux) and making Marjorie’s estranged family, who she has already written out of her will in favor of leaving it all to Bernie, suspicious.

As the story continues to unfold, you may find yourself shaking your head. However, this is pretty much as things actually happened, although the family of Marjorie Nugent is adamant that she is not nearly as nasty as she is portrayed here. However, the other events unfolded pretty much as you see them here, although there are some differences – for one thing, the county district attorney in no way resembles Matthew McConaughey who plays him here.

I’m being deliberately vague about the details of what happened because the movie is much more effective if you don’t know in advance (although the story has aired on a variety of news programs both on basic cable and on the networks). Knowing what’s to come robs you of the shock value of what happens because you literally don’t see it coming.

One of the things I love about the movie is the way the story is told, which is pretty much through anecdotes from actual townspeople of Carthage who knew the players quite well, as well as a handful of actors who play townspeople (one of whom is McConaughey’s actual mother – he was raised in the area nearby). They talk about the characters with (in the case of Bernie) genuine affection or (in the case of Marjorie) genuine loathing, peppered with quite a bit of humor – one curmudgeonly sort refers to a neighboring town as being full of rednecks “with more tattoos than teeth.” I wish I’d thought of that.

One of the big attractions here is Black. Often he tends to do over-the-top smarmy kinds of guys. There is a little bit of the used car salesman to Bernie, but this is a very complicated role. He’s effeminate (the real-life Tiete is gay) to the point that his sexuality is questioned, although in the East Texas Bible Belt the general feeling is “Naw! Can’t be…this is Texas!” He’s also a little bit compulsive, and maybe not all that forthcoming about the demons inside him.

MacLaine is a grand dame of the silver screen, and although she rarely makes appearances, she really inhabits the role. Joe Rhodes, a freelance writer in Los Angeles who happens to be the nephew of the real Marjorie Nugent, pronounced that MacLaine’s pinched, disapproving expression was a dead ringer for his aunt’s. Even if Black weren’t in this movie, it would be worth seeing just to see a legend at work.

Keep in mind that this is Bernie’s story – the title of the film is a dead giveaway – so Marjorie’s perspective is barely acknowledged. Why she acted the way she did, what drove her – nary a thought in that direction. I would have liked to see a more even point of view, one less Bernie-centric. Also, Carthage is portrayed as being completely behind Bernie – contemporary accounts say that the town was pretty evenly divided in its approval of him. However, that so many thought of him as a near-saint – and that if any wrong-doing was done, Marjorie had it coming – which is incredible when you think about it. Then again, truth is stranger than fiction.

REASONS TO GO: Black gives an Oscar-caliber performance. Love the anecdotal way the story is told. Wickedly funny in places with a homespun humor.

REASONS TO STAY: Hard to forget that you’re rooting for a guy who did some awful things. Doesn’t really present Marjorie’s point of view other than to show her as entirely despicable.

FAMILY VALUES: There are images of violence, some gruesome mortuary training sequences and some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Hawthorn Funeral Home, where Bernie Tiede worked and where he and Marjorie Nugent met, refused to allow its name used in the film nor its image due to the family that owned it feeling uncomfortable with the film having so many comedic elements when at the core it’s about the murder of a real person.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/21/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alpha Dog

MORTICIAN LOVERS: The film opens with Bernie training a group of students in the art of preparing a body for a funeral.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Kill Bill Vol. 1

Tuck Everlasting


Tuck Everlasting

Into the fire from out of the fryer go the Tucks.

(2002) Family Fantasy (Disney) Alexis Bledel, William Hurt, Sissy Spacek, Jonathan Jackson, Scott Bairstow, Ben Kingsley, Amy Irving, Victor Garber, Kosha Engler, Richard Pilcher, Sean Pratt, Julia Hart, Elisabeth Shue (voice). Directed by Jay Russell

Many people yearn for eternal life, free from the terror of the unknown that is death. However, eternal life would be a mixed blessing at best, a curse at worst. How does one cope with remaining the same age forever; would eternal life mean the cessation of growth?

Winnie Foster (Bledel) lives a stultifying life in small town Tree Gap in 1914 New England. The daughter of a successful man (Garber) and a mother (Irving) who disapproves of anything that does not fit into her narrow world view, Winnie is rebellious and lively, aching to see the world and fearful that the societal conventions of Tree Gap will never let her venture far beyond her own parlor.

Being the anti-authoritarian sort, she ventures into the woods that border her home, property owned by the Fosters. There she sees a handsome young boy drinking from a spring that bubbles up from the roots of an ancient oak. The young boy is Jesse Tuck (Jackson). She questions him about what he’s doing there; he warns her not to drink from the spring.

Before she can do anything, she is swooped up by a man on horseback – Jesse’s brother Miles (Bairstow). He carries her to a cabin deep in the woods where they are met by the boys’ parents, Angus (Hurt) and Mae (Spacek). No, they’re not members of a survivalist organization; they’re just simple folk. Mae welcomes Jesse into her home, chiding Miles for being rude and frightening the young girl.

The Tucks are a family that doesn’t wish to be found but what they’re hiding from becomes clear when a mysterious Man in a Yellow Suit (Kingsley) comes around looking for the Tucks. When Winnie’s disappearance becomes public knowledge, he offers aid, providing a perspective nobody else can.

You see, the Tucks have a secret, one that has kept them isolated from the rest of the world for a very long time; about 90 years to be exact. Remember that spring that Jesse was drinking from? It grants eternal life to all those who drink from it, freezing them eternally at the age they were when they first drank. That’s a secret that people would kill for…people like the Man in the Yellow Suit, who has a connection to the Tucks that speaks to their dark past.

This is based on a popular 1976 children’s book by Natalie Babbitt. One would think that the dark themes of the book would be watered down and Disneyfied by the Mouse House but amazingly, they are not. This is not pablum that has been dumbed down for the lowest common denominator; this is meant to provoke conversation and thought.

Hurt and Spacek make a good couple, with Hurt playing a wise old man quite well. Bairstow and Jackson play hot-headed youths whose penchant to act first and think later begins the whole mess but also rescues their parents on at least one occasion. The dynamic between all four actors is marvelous is a highlight of the movie.

Bledel is an actress I’ve never particularly warmed to; she’s always seemed rather shrill to me, but she is more than solid here. She is literally the audience surrogate in the movie and it is through her eyes that we see events. Bledel shows a very deft touch here, something she doesn’t always show in other movies she’s done. I hope she has more performances like this one in her; she would rapidly move to be one of my favorites if that were the case.

The filmmakers do a wonderful job of creating the pre-World War I rural America, from the settings to the atmosphere; Irving plays the uptight upper class mother who wants her daughter molded into the very model of a proper well-bred lady, and it’s not a role Irving has taken on in the past but she makes it work here. Garber is in my opinion, one of the most underrated actors ever; his work on “Alias” and “Eli Stone” on television is as strong as anything that’s out there, film or TV.

Now, I do have one bone to pick with the movie – there is a theme tune that is used over and over again in the movie – you hear it constantly and I believe it is there to signify the mystery of eternal life. They could have done without ramming it down our throats.

The point of the movie is not necessarily that eternal life is either good or bad (although the general consensus is that it is bad) but rather the unfulfilled life is the worst of all choices. Winnie’s outlook of being doomed to a life that has no resonance with her, that leaves her gifts unutilized, her potential unrealized – that is the true tragedy. The Tucks may have longevity but they are hiding from life (although the boys have seen much of the world, they are now living with their parents…even when they’re 107 they always come back to mom and dad). Winnie, who has a short lifespan compared to theirs, embraces life and all it has to offer both good and bad. Truly, there is more value to quality of life than quantity.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-written, well-acted and the world of the Tucks is set up nicely, as is the world of turn of the century rural America.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Theme music is used ad infinitum until a pleasant tune actually becomes tedious.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence and some images and situations that might be scary for the younger set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Bledel’s feature film debut after establishing her name in “The Gilmore Girls;” the part of Jesse was originally offered to her Gilmore co-star Jared Padalecki but he declined in order to work with different co-stars.   

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interview with author Natalie Babbitt, and an interesting “Lessons of the Tucks” feature which examines themes and issues brought in the movie which is used in a similar manner as a standard trivia track.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.3M on an unreported production budget; the movie was unsuccessful.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Fountain

It’s a Wonderful Life


It's a Wonderful Life
George Bailey once caught a fish that was THISSSS big!!

(1946) Holiday Fantasy (RKO Radio) Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, H.B. Warner, Frank Albertson, Tom Karns. Directed by Frank Capra

There are a lot of movies that are designated as classics, and they get that kind of acclaim for a variety of reasons. Some transcend time and place, bring into focus our basic humanity and reaffirm the basic goodness that is inside all of us, even though we sometimes seem more like the greedy banker than the noble George Bailey.

The aforementioned George Bailey (Stewart) wants nothing more than to see the world, but events conspire against him. His father’s building and loan in the picturesque town of Bedford Falls is the only alternative for people to build homes as opposed to live in the squalid shacks built by the town’s greedy, grasping Mr. Potter (Barrymore), one of  filmdom’s all time nastiest villains. Time after time, just when it seems that George is going to get his dream, something happens to frustrate him.

Most of us know the basics of the story. When George hits rock bottom, his business short by several thousand dollars on Christmas Eve just when the auditor arrives and it seems as if he is going to go to jail and his family rocked by scandal, he wishes he had never been born. His somewhat bedraggled guardian angel Clarence (Travers) grants him his wish and he gets to see what the world would be like without him.

The message is that a single person can make a huge difference on the lives of those around them is perhaps not an unusual one but few films have ever delivered it as effectively as this one. A perennial Christmas favorite, the redemption of George Bailey is recognized as the redemption of us all. Like George Bailey, we often don’t recognize what we have right in front of us.

This may very well be Jimmy Stewart’s most defining role. He made a career of playing an unassuming everyman, none more basically good than George Bailey. He’s a good man doing the best he can in trying circumstances; we can all see a little bit of ourselves in George, and in his devoted wife Mary (Reed). The love between them is genuine and uplifting, and much more passionate than movies of the time were generally.

Barrymore, one of the great actors of his generation, plays mean Mr. Potter note-perfectly as a man obsessed with power and possession and in doing so creates one of the most memorable movie villains ever. George Bailey compares him to a spider and so he is, sitting in his web, spinning his plans with a worldview that is cynical, believing the people are basically corrupt and unworthy. It is the difference between Bailey and Potter that represents the two opposing views of the nature of man. We like to believe that we are more like George Bailey, even though oftentimes we act more like Mr. Potter – in our own self-interest with little regard for the world behind us. I do believe he would have found our world very much to his liking.

And yet we still believe in George Bailey. Seeing this movie always brings to mind that we are, at heart, yearning to be George Bailey, wishing that the world worked the way it does here where the good are surrounded by friends who rush to the rescue in our darkest hour. It’s a world where angels get wings whenever a bell rings, where decrepit houses can become homes and where daddies can fix broken flowers with a little bit of glue and a lot of love. It’s a world where prayers are answered and guardian angels walk among us. It is a better world. It is our world, or at least it could be.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s a heartwarming classic that uplifts the spirit no matter how depressed you may be.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You have the soul of Mr. Potter.

FAMILY VALUES: This is a family classic that can be enjoyed by anyone of any age.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The American Film Institute has named this movie the #1 most inspirational film of all time, the #1 most powerful film of all time, the #3 Fantasy film of all time and the #20 film overall.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The 2-disc DVD and Blu-Ray editions include a making of documentary hosted by the late Tom Bosley and Frank Capra Jr. hosts a featurette entitled “A Personal Remembrance.”

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Formosa Betrayed