Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on November 30th, 2011 by Jim Delaney

Thursday November 10, 2011 at the Regal Fenway Stadium, Boston, MA.

Directed by James Bobin, written by Jason Segel & Nicholas Stoller, starring Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, and The Muppets.

I love the Muppets. When I was in preschool I was too preoccupied with SPEED RACER and JOHNNY QUEST to notice SESAME STREET. I was aware of SESAME STREET, but I didn’t watch it. My first real connection to Jim Henson’s characters came when I entered the first grade, and they entered prime time. Eventually I grew to appreciate the Disneyesque optimism of SESAME STREET, but I always preferred the Looney Tunes rambunctiousness of THE MUPPET SHOW. Because I love the Muppets, I hold them to a higher standard than entertainment for which I have less of an affinity; happily their first feature film in twelve years is worthy of that standard.

The script for the new film apparently had an extensive development period. It helps to have writers who are true believers in the world Jim Henson created a generation or two ago. It helps even more that one of those writers is an established television star who also has a string of mostly very successful films to his credit. Jason Segel‘s puppeteer character in FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, which he also wrote, hinted at his affinity for The Muppets. If someone loved the work of Robert E. Howard and John Buscema as much as Segel clearly loves Henson’s work, this summer’s revival of CONAN THE BARBARIAN would have been an amazing movie.

The core story of THE MUPPETS is shrewdly cobbled together from several archetypes of both cinematic style and classic story telling. Segel’s character Gary has a brother named Walter who is straight out of BILLY ELLIOT or RUDY. Walter so loves the Muppets that the greatest possible joy he could imagine is the chance that he might one day meet them. What separates Walter from Billy Elliot and Rudy Ruettiger, and indeed from Gary, is that Walter actually is a Muppet! This is part of what makes Muppet films unique: even as they embrace archetypes, like the underdog runt searching for his place in the world, they turn them on their head and subvert them to the Muppets’ own rules. In this story a human man and a Muppet can be brothers — and no one notices this as odd!

A staple element of ensemble buddy movies ranging from Frank Sinatra’s Danny Ocean up to, well, George Clooney’s Danny Ocean is the reunion of old friends for a new purpose. It worked in THE WILD BUNCH, it worked when Jake & Elwood Blues got the band back together, and it works for Kermit. In fact, it works doubly so for Kermit. Kermit’s quest to round up his stray friends propels this basic story of the Muppets’ rallying to save their old theater from their 70’s variety show days. The reunion angle simultaneously allows for the introduction of the Muppets to audiences too young to recall their last theatrical entry while addressing themes of aging and imposed obsolescence that resonate with anyone old enough to have watched the original primetime airings of THE MUPPET SHOW. Reminiscent of how Kal-El must have felt upon reading Lois Lane’s editorial on a world without Superman in SUPERMAN RETURNS, this film finds Kermit realizing that television has knocked the Muppets to the rock bottom of the hip-n-trendy scale. Kermit’s reunion with Miss Piggy culminates in a stroll through Paris, poignantly acknowledging that Muppets have to work as hard as humans to make love and friendship last, in a scene that would seem very much at home in a Woody Allen film. Each of these moments manage both the easy fix of keeping the pace moving, and the difficult trick of perfectly nailing the tone for each scene to keep audiences of all ages engaged.

All of this classic film structure aside, it’s wonderful to see the Muppets have not lost their touch for lunacy. They were expert practitioners of metafiction before that term was applied to film or television. Probably the best example of this is the song “Man or Muppet,” sung by Gary and Walter. As the man and Muppet brothers explore their existential void in the song, they cross into each others crisis, and transcend the film in a sequence reminiscent of some of the more groundbreaking 80’s music videos. Segel’s over the top Meatloaf-esque operatic wailing both parodies heart-on-your-sleeve pop songs and gives this oddball tune a ring of truth. I saw this movie in a screening geared toward college students. The general mumbling and rampant texting around me during this scene left the impression that this audience was more laughing at this moment than with it. This was a sequence worthy of The Marx Bros or Mel Brooks, but unless you are schooled in Groucho and Mongo, the absurd hilarity and sincere subtext of this song will not fully resonate.

Rumors on the internets about a “surprise cameo” were apparently referring to a moment in “Man or Muppet,” though the entire movie is laden with cameos, from Mickey Rooney to Rico Rodriguez. I’m glad that these cameos were not strictly reserved for celebrities, but also for lesser known characters from the Muppet universe. Personally I was a big fan of MUPPETS TONIGHT, the mid 90’s attempt to revitalize the Muppets on primetime TV. One of the characters from that revival, the dimwitted and overly confident lounge singer Johnny Fiama, appears during this song as Jason Segel’s Muppet doppleganger. The only thing that could have made Johnny’s appearance better would be if they found room for his angry monkey bodyguard Sal Minella; here’s hoping there’s room for Sal & Johnny in the next Muppet movie!

I’m a fan of divisive movies; I’ll always prefer a movie that folks either love or hate, even if I’m among those who hate it, to a movie that we are all equally ambivalent about. If you follow the IMDb message boards, you’ll see that THE MUPPETS has no shortage of detractors who bemoan nearly every Muppet effort since the passing of Jim Henson. I’m also a die hard STAR TREK fan; just as I acknowledge that the primary mission of the most recent STAR TREK film was to acquire a new generation of fans, such is the case with this film. My audience full of college kids texting each other were mostly born after Jim Henson died. If you grew up wit THE MUPPET SHOW on TV like I did, you’ve already had your fair share of Muppet films. These are the classic Muppets for a new generation, and they accomplish that job with characteristic style and surprising grace. THE MUPPETS will not change your life or make you a better person, but it just might open your kids’ minds the way SESAME STREET and THE MUPPET SHOW did yours.

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Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on November 20th, 2011 by Jim Delaney

From Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Written & Directed by Spike Lee, starring Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Samuel L. Jackson, Joie Lee, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, Rosie Perez, and John Turturro.

24 hours on one block in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, NY.
On the hottest day of the summer, racial tensions simmer between residents of a predominately African American and Puerto Rican neighborhood, and the Italian American owners of a pizza parlor. And then they explode.

Spike Lee had touched on racism earlier in SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT and SCHOOL DAZE, but following what became know as The Howard Beach Incident, he decided the gloves needed to come off. This is the script than earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and the film that earned him a Palm D’or nomination at Cannes. It also earned him the fear of critics like newspaper columnist Joe Klein, who wrote “Spike Lee’s reckless new movie DO THE RIGHT THING … opens June 30 (in not too many theaters near you, one hopes).” The controversy surrounding DO THE RIGHT THING in the summer of 1989 cemented Spike’s reputation as a voice who demands to be heard.

It’ll finish Friday.
Love, Jim

P.S. Come early, or you’ll miss Rosie fightin’ the power with Public Enemy!

AFTER THOUGHT from 11.20.2011
I don’t know if Spike Lee still does this, but in the early days of his feature directing career, he used to do college tours with his films in the weeks before they opened. My brother Ed & I used our Emerson College IDs to see him present DO THE RIGHT THING at a theater in M.I.T. This was just a few months after MISSISSIPPI BURNING, a fictionalized story lacking any significant African American characters despite its civil rights themes, received 7 Oscar nominations. Ed and I arrived fairly early; we were among the first 100 people into the theater, in what turned out to be a packed house with many people turned away. Waiting for the movie to start, I spotted a young man with a t-shirt featuring a parody of the MISSISSIPPI BURNING logo: “Brooklyn Burning.” I approached this guy to ask him where he got this shirt, and I realized it was Spike Lee! I immediately forgot the shirt and became tongue-tied. I managed to introduce myself and thank him for this screening; he shook my hand and thanked me for coming out to see the movie. During his introduction to the film, Spike acknowledged early critics who predicted DO THE RIGHT THING would incite racial violence, balancing their concerns with his personal mandate that “the gloves come off” following the aforementioned Howard Beach incident. In aspiring to directly address an elephant in the room that had been ignored for years by mainstream films, he calmly and humbly set the bar very high for himself and an ensuing generation of film makers.

I rolled DO THE RIGHT THING nearly two decades later in our agency conference room. It was generally well received, but to my younger coworkers who were raised on the generation of filmmakers who followed in Spike’s footsteps, they found the story overly episodic without enough of a narrative through-line. While that is a fairly accurate point, I submit that it is irrelevant, as DO THE RIGHT THING is not a standard three act structure with a protagonist and an antagonist. Oh, it’s very well disguised as one, enough so to make it marketable. If you want to pick a “good guy” and a “bad guy” out of this bunch, Spike’s pizza deliverer Mookie is a funny and likable enough hero, and Danny Aiello’s pizzeria owner Sal is frequently bombastic enough to be a villain. You can even find a story arc over the course of the single day storyline in that Mookie begins the film as an apathetic quasi-irresponsible kid, and through a sequence of events beyond his control, emerges as a man who makes a stand and takes control with an irreversible decision that affects his entire neighborhood.

Yes, you can say that DO THE RIGHT THING is about Mookie and Sal, and the general racial tension that I used to pitch this film to my coworkers. On further analysis though, I don’t think this is that kind of movie, and I submit that the title alone tells you what type of movie this is. Let’s look at two other titles: TOMBSTONE (1993) and WYATT EARP (1994). I like both, I am in the minority that prefers WYATT EARP, but I think it is notable that their titles alone tell us that these are very different movies. TOMBSTONE is about one event, the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral, and its effect on the lives of many people. It begins shortly before October 26, 1881 and ends shortly after, padding its running time with some fun western cliches, plus a level of historical inaccuracy required to make These Guys heroes and Those Guys villains. WYATT EARP is about many events in the life of one man, who lived from 1848 to 1929. Since it follows this one man’s life, WYATT EARP is able to give us a more nuanced portrait of Wyatt Earp than TOMBSTONE, examining positive and negative aspects of Earp’s life and personality. DO THE RIGHT THING does not belong to any one character, but there is also more at work than a single event in the lives of many people.

A title like DO THE RIGHT THING has less similarity to TOMBSTONE or WYATT EARP, and more to do with an intangible like THE RIGHT STUFF (1983). It’s probably no coincidence that when I screened THE RIGHT STUFF, some viewers preferred APOLLO 13, again because of its strong central characters an singular story arc. THE RIGHT STUFF and DO THE RIGHT THING are titles that tell you that this is a movie about a specific idea or value. As a pilot you either have THE RIGHT STUFF or you don’t, and only fellow pilots can really discern who possesses that quality. On a sweltering day in Bed-Stuy, with a continuing heatwave expected the following day, you can either DO THE RIGHT THING or not. Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) pointedly admonishes Mookie to “always to the right thing. That’s it.” He does not tell Mookie what the right thing is, or how to do it, only when to do it (always). This is a film about each character’s decision to do right or not, and what happens when one person’s decision collides with that of another. ***SPOLIER ALERT — skip to the next paragraph if you have not seen the film*** — Spike Lee has observed that more have criticized Mookie’s decision to through a garbage can through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria than have objected to the N.Y.P.D. character’s decision to use a lethal (and now illegal) choke hold on Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn).***

To some of my former coworkers, and maybe to some who read this, DO THE RIGHT THING plays as a little outdated. If this is so, it is because we do not make as many films these days about intangibles like the Right Stuff, the Right Thing to do, or faith and doubt. [Spike Lee addressed faith and doubt in THE MIRACLE AT ST. ANA in a manner rarely seen since THE MISSION (1986) and other films written by Robert Bolt.] Because DO THE RIGHT THING wrangles that quality of a single person with the inequality of races in a neighborhood and a nation, the story is able to show examples of each across its spectrum of characters. Sal is not a villain through and through; early in the film he treats Mookie with the same stern affection as he does his own two sons, and embraces his position in this neighborhood, even over the objections of one of those sons. Mookie is not a hero through and through, but don’t take my word for it, ask his girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez). Da Mayor tries to live by his own advice, and be a good guy, but he is mostly seen as a bum by those around him. Good intentions go wrong. Decisions are often hard to make, and often have unintended consequences. Inaction comes with its own consequences. As long as these things are true, DO THE RIGHT THING will be one for the ages.

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Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on June 15th, 2011 by Jim Delaney

From Friday, February 1, 2008.

Written & Directed by Jared Hess, starring Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, Tina Majorino and Jon Greis.

If Apathy had a poster-child, it’d be Napoleon Dynamite. He spends his days going to school to avoid his weird family, and his nights avoiding his classmates by hiding in his home drawing mythical beasts. His complacency is shaken when circumstances force him to experience two classic high school rites of passage: ask a girl to a dance, and help a friend run for Student President.

Between the bigger studios and the indie world, we get a handful of movies like this every year. Most are deservedly forgotten. Every so often, a performance comes along to set one film above the rest, becoming the prototype for the next generation of characters cherished by nerds as “quotable:” Matthew Broderick as Ferris Bueller, Jason Schwartzman as Max Fischer, and Jon Heder as Napoleon Dynamite.

It’ll finish on Tuesday – CALIFORNIA PRIMARY DAY!! If you’re at a loss who to vote for, write in Pedro Sanchez.
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from 6.15.11
I have pondered my statement above from three years ago that studios release movies like this. I now recant that statement. Maybe ten or twenty years ago NAPOLEON DYNAMITE would have a chance at a major studio, but not anymore; this film is living proof of the necessity of the film festival circuit. If this script were submitted to any of the major studios it never would have passed through the first round of readers. The characters are too passive, development execs would say, and the story is too challenging to market. If the script were submitted to a talent agency, Hess’s quirky dialog might have been enough to get him signed as a client, but he would have quickly found himself farmed out to the latest Fox, WB or UPN teen/tween show. Certain movies will only get made if a committed crew makes costumes out of their own clothes, borrows locations from neighbors, rents a camera and shoots it with no guarantee that anyone other than friends and family will ever see it. Where the studio marketing team sees a product that does not fit their target demographic paradigm, the audiences who seek out film festivals will take one look at Napoleon, and say “He looks weird, but I know a guy like that; I wonder what this kid’s story is?”

I like NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, but I do not love it, and I do not regard it as a cult classic. Then again that may be because I am not part of the cult! When we screened it over two days at the agency, the first day drew one of our best crowds ever, with all chairs at the conference table filled and some dragging their desk chairs in from outside. Only my pal Sammy showed up on the second day. Everyone else jumped ship, including a few people who had urged me for weeks to show it, and with whose lunch schedules I had coordinated the screening dates. This led me to a new theory about this movie: it worked initially because it was a surprise. Just as a studio story department can’t draw up a character like Napoleon by design, the film loses something if you plan to see it; it’s one of those movies that you may own on DVD but never watch. When it runs on cable after midnight you’ll stay up late to watch it. You could have planned to watch it at 8pm with your own DVD, but when it pops up as a surprise, that is when the charm shines through. Just a theory; I’ll have to test that by catching it unexpectedly, like I tested my “studios give us movies like this every year” notion. What do you think?

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Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on June 8th, 2011 by Jim Delaney

From Wednesday, February 6, 2008.

Written & Directed by Barry Levinson, starring Adrien Brody, Joe Mantegna, Bebe Neuwirth, Rebekah Johnson, Orlando Jones, Anthony Anderson and introducing Ben Foster (who got the gig during an open call!)

Between Rosh Hashanah of 1954 and 1955, the Kurtzman family of Baltimore is confronted with endings, beginnings and other upheavals. Nate Kurtzman (Mantegna), who runs a burlesque house and numbers racket, sees both of his businesses dying at the hands of television and a brand new state lottery. Older son Van (Brody) is off to college in the first non-Jewish school he’s ever attended. Younger son Ben not only experiences his first crush with Sylvia, an African American girl in his class, he also discovers rock-n-roll. When Nate makes a last-ditch attempt at financial solvency for his family, races and generations collide in hilarious, poignant and unexpected ways.

This is the fourth of Levinson’s semi-autobiographical “Baltimore Films” the others being DINER, TIN MEN and AVALON. LIBERTY HEIGHTS is set a notch above the others by some of the most intricate editing (by Stu Linder) to come out of a major studio in years. Without taking the focus away from the characters, the editing creates stunningly evocative layers of sound, image and music. Aside from the music (Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Elvis, Tom Waits) it helps to have Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle providing the images. Doyle, possibly the most underrated shooter alive, is largely responsible for the glowing signature look of most of Wong Kar Wai’s movies. Many films are described as “labors of love” — it’s rare to see this much love poured into every aspect of a movie.

It’ll finish Friday.
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from 6.8.11
To this day LIBERTY HEIGHTS is the only movie that ever prompted me to write a fan letter to a filmmaker, primarily for the reasons mentioned in the above pitch to my agency coworkers: images in that playful 50’s color palette balanced with resonant music grabbed me within the first act and rewarded my attention throughout. I had witnessed a single song used well with a montage, but I had never seen montages of music paired with montages of images, with sound from one scene bleeding into the scenes that precede and follow. My actor and fellow writer pals will hate me for saying this, but certain elements of great movies can only come from the vision of a director, and must be controlled by the unsung creative forces of editors and composers.

Andrea Morricone composed the score for LIBERTY HEIGHTS. In the final 42 seconds of the trailer you can hear echoes of his father Ennio’s work, particularly the romantic sweep of CINEMA PARADISO, on which Andrea assisted the maestro. During a Halloween party scene where Van meets both Dubbie and Trey, the girl of his dreams and her boyfriend, dialog is often replaced with a soundscape swinging from “Shake Rattle & Roll” to the roar of Trey’s convertible to “Rock Island Line.” James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please” and Morricone’s score trade partners as Ben and Sylvia attend a James Brown concert downtown, while uptown Van and Dubbie share a heart to heart at a party in the backyard of one of their classmates mausoleum like homes. Levinson’s seamless blend of sound and vision finds one scene informing another, one character speaking for another character’s dilemma, in a manner as unorthodox for a mainstream film as it is haunting and unforgettable.

I do not mean to imply that LIBERTY HEIGHTS is lacking in the engaging performances and impeccable storytelling departments. This film afforded me the unique experience of giving up on guessing where the story will go next. It’s a wonderful feeling when you realize your cliché based predictions and assumptions have been tossed out the window, that it’s best to sit back, and enjoy the company in which you have been placed. I can give you one glimpse that will not spoil any dramatic turns: before Ben takes Sylvia to see James Brown, he asks if he can borrow his father’s Cadillac. In any other movie set in the 1950’s Nate Kurtzman would be reading the newspaper, Ada Kurtzman (Bebe Neuwirth) would be darning socks or otherwise knitting, and “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet” would be on TV. Here when Ben yells down from the kitchen, we see Nate and Ada practicing the cha cha in a swank finished basement, hiding just how hip Mom and Dad Kurtzman are from passersby on the street. That’s a married couple still deeply in love and smoldering for each other, even as their son is old enough to go to college; when is the last time you saw that in an American movie?

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Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on April 21st, 2011 by Jim Delaney

Wednesday April 13, 2011 at The Brattle Theater, Cambridge, MA.
Directed by Malcolm Venville, starring Keanu Reeves, Verga Farmiga, James Caan, Bill Duke and Peter Stormare.

HENRY’S CRIME is a happy little surprise. It’s not going to make you a better person. It’s not going to open your eyes to anything. It’s not trying to. It is trying to entertain you without insulting your intelligence. There will always be a contingent of people who see Keanu Reeves as little more than one half of Wyld Stallyns. You know if you’re one of them if you smirked or giggled at the thought of a Keanu Reeves movie not insulting your intelligence. More on that later. The beauty of this film is the simplicity of the story and the quiet grace of Malcolm Venville’s staging of it. As he’d done in the recent 44 INCH CHEST Venville shows a keen interest in the decision process of his characters. He also has a rare knack for bringing a melancholy note to comic moments and vice versa. One of Venville’s more evocative touches are moments when he films Henry Torne (Reeves) in confined spaces, or on the inside looking out, as he ponders how to get to that place he’d rather be.

The story opens with Henry working the graveyard shift as a toll booth operator in Buffalo, NY. Before his morning is over, Henry is tricked by friends into driving the getaway car for a bank heist, then abandoned to take the fall. Henry spends the next three years in prison, where his cellmate Max (James Caan, looking very Joe Biden these days) points out the inequity of Henry doing the time without having done the crime. Upon release Henry devises a deceptively simple plan to tunnel into the very same bank through an adjacent theater. You might expect I’d say “from here mayhem and hilarity ensue.” Not so much, and at least in this case, it makes for a better movie.

HENRY’S CRIME has a reasonable share of big laughs, but being in the company of screwball characters who felt like they would be at home in a 1970’s Peter Falk movie, I found myself smiling through nearly the entire film. There are added bonuses, including one of the more engaging opposites attract romantic relationships I’ve seen in quite a while, and a song score comprising tunes from the Daptone Records catalog. Henry inadvertently meets Julie (Vera Farmiga) twice as he plans his crime. First: she damn near runs him over with her car when he is observing the bank. Second: while casing the theater he discovers she is rehearsing Ranyevskaya for an impending production of THE CHERRY ORCHARD. Neither of them has any interest in the other. At Max’s urging Henry pursues the role of Lopahkin to gain access to the dressing room nearest the bank. This places Henry and Julie in close enough quarters that one of them is bound to step in a pile of love. Daptone funk & soul tunes lend a unique and comforting aura to every scene they grace. This music distinguishes the movie, and Henry and Julie’s relationship, from an endless list of films that recycle the same dozen or so Motown standards or nuggets from the Woodstock era. There is nothing about this film that would make you believe it could happen nor is there anything so ridiculous as to strain the suspension of disbelief. What ties together all the tiny gems, be they comedic or romantic or photographic or musical, is that they make the story fun enough that you will want to believe Henry’s scheme just might work.

HENRY’S CRIME is the the first film produced by Keanu Reeves and Stephen Hamel’s Company Films. Henry is more than a role Reeves took for a paycheck, this is a script he developed for a few years, brought to life by a crew he helped to hire. This is his best chance so far to showcase his strengths. Many critics and fans have said that his best roles, SPEED and THE MATRIX cited most frequently, are those that do not require him to speak too often. Some feel his dialog delivery is wooden but this ignores what separates Reeves from current acting styles. Tony Soprano once lamented the loss of “men like Gary Cooper, y’know, the strong silent type.” Keanu Reeves’ best roles are the strong, silent and smart type; men who observe and then do. Henry Torne uses clipped sentences if he speaks in full sentences at all, in contrast to his stage role as Lopahkin, a character who is far more certain about the damage he is willing to cause to get what he wants. If you pay attention to Reeves’ eyes and the way he carries himself (compare Henry withering in a corner in his jail cell to Jack Traven figuring out the bomb under the bus) you will see the dimensions he can bring that are not on the page. THE LAKE HOUSE would never have worked without an actor who could be simultaneously introspective and charming.

One final thought about the man who was Mnemonic. Reeves passed on millions for SPEED 2 because he’d promised to tour with his Dogstar band mates. Maybe he was preserving his artistic integrity, maybe he was showing loyalty to his friends, either way it was a smart move. Where some stars demand only lead roles regardless of how weak the film is, since I LOVE YOU TO DEATH and MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING through SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE to THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE, Reeves has frequently taken supporting roles for the opportunity to work with strong casts. Scoff if you must, but few actors work harder to stretch their range, and give the audience our time and money’s worth more than the guy who is one half of Company Films.

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Posted in MOVIES TO REMEMBER: The ol' favorites that The Lunch Movie kids might have watched had the tradition continued... on December 20th, 2009 by Jim Delaney

Friday, December 9, 2009 at The Brattle Theater, Cambridge MA

Directed and co-written by Frank Capra, starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers and Gloria Graham.

It is convenient that The Brattle Theater offered IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE in the weekend right after I had seen Herzog’s THE BAD LIEUTENANT. This sequence enables me to stay on the topic of “movies I had strong hesitations about seeing.” For years I was way too impressed with my deep dark self to ever watch a movie with such a sappy title, never minding that I’d loved MIRACLE ON 34th STREET since I was old enough to barely begin wondering if Santa was real or not.

Wonderful Life, who are you kidding?! It did not matter if Mom or Dad loved it; it would take much more than that for me sit through a trip to Bedford Falls. When the challenge came in 1990, I was 20 years old in my senior year at Emerson College, so the deep dark (and pretentious) self was in overdrive. I was working at a Loews Theater in Copley Square, which is now sadly a Barney’s New York. We had three projectionists, all of whom taught film at local colleges and had made their own films. There was one fella named Phil who looked like Rasputin in Levis and an oil-stained t-shirt. Phil had earned the right to be as deep-n-dark as the rest of us students-by-day/ushers-by-night thought we were. If we mentioned Lucas, Phil would ask what we knew about Kurosawa; if we mentioned 2001 or CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, he would ask if we’d seen SOLARIS. It was this man who, when I mocked IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE simply for it’s title, informed me that he felt it was “one of the most important and purely American works of art in any medium that any artist has ever made.”

So I watched it. And I cried like a sap. Way before the end, and again at the end. And I have watched it at least once per year since then. In all those viewings, I have come to the conclusion that IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is not amazing for the tears and joy that it makes us all look forward to. Its greatness lies in the levels of hell that it puts poor ol’ George Bailey through before he earns that tearful ending. This is a man who just cannot catch a break. Every time things are going right, something will come along to ruin it. Hey George, you have Mary in a very interesting situation and needing her robe? Guess what, your father has fallen ill. Hey George, your brother Harry has returned from college to take over your job? His new wife and her father have other plans. You’re finally escaping Bedford Falls to see the world, and on your honeymoon no less? Not on October 29, 1928!

The story is brilliant in its precision, ratcheting up George’s hope in equal measure with his dashed expectations. The winning decision that Frank Capra makes as a director is that he stands back and lets Jimmy Stewart become George Bailey. Camera movement and editing are, for the most part, spare. When George learns that Harry will not be taking over his job as planned, we follow George for a searching moment as he approaches Harry’s new wife. There is a similar pause when George and Mary are about to leave for their honeymoon, when they witness a mob gathering outside the Bailey Building & Loan. Yet another comes after Clarence has granted George his wish, where Capra closes in tight on Stewart’s face as George surveys what his become of Bedford Falls in his absence. Stewart’s eyes deliver soliloquies of greater despair than anything that could have been written for him to say.

Capra also loads the film with other little gems like the shot above: rather than belaboring George’s skepticism about Clarence with excessive dialogue, Capra simply inserts a physical barrier into the shot. We had already seen the clothes line earlier to know that George and Clarence’s clothes were drying from their fall into the river. We do not need to see it in this shot, except that it works to sever a lost man from his own salvation.

When I was younger and uninformed, I had expected IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE to be a blissfully ignorant denial of the very same hardships I had yet to experience. It is in the film’s embracing and transcending life’s slings and arrows that it finds its power and glory. Even for those of us who can only aspire to the destination George reaches, we can all relate to the road he travels. Capra is on record as saying he got more mail regarding the fate of old man Potter than he did any other topic in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. What those letter writers missed was that Potter’s punishment is that he has to be Mr. Potter for the rest of his miserable life. George Bailey reminds us that those hallmarks of America’s Greatest Generation — tenacity, ingenuity and generosity — can be their own rewards. Thanks for the push, Phil.

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Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on November 13th, 2009 by Jim Delaney

From June 17, 2008

Directed by Rob Reiner, written by Nora Ephron, starring Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal, Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby, and photographed by — who knew? — Barry Sonnenfeld.

Harry Burns (Crystal) and Sally Albright (Ryan) share an awkward road trip from the University of Chicago to New York City.  Virtual strangers at the beginning of the trip, they become less-than-fond acquaintances by the time they arrive.  A series of coincidences or fate continues to re-introduce them to each other over the next 10 years.  As their reluctant friendship grows, they face the age old question of whether or not a man and woman can be friends without sex getting in the way.

It’ll finish Tuesday,
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from November 13, 2009
I loved this movie when I first saw it in college, until my classmate Preston pointed out that it’s like Woody Allen’s Greatest Hits, without Woody. Not long after Preston made me aware of this, Premiere magazine backed him up with a table/flowchart sorta comparison. They cited roughly a dozen scenes in WHEN HARRY MET SALLLY in one column, and in adjacent columns they cited a Woody Allen title and a particular scene from that movie, making the case that Reiner-n-Ephron-n-Co. had come up wit a derivative movie.

Y’know what? I don’t care anymore. I don’t care, partly because in this day and age we have an emerging DJ-ethos to filmmaking. Quentin Tarantino is not unique in making a career of mashing up elements different movies that he loves, but he is unique and that he acknowledges it. But I also don’t care, because movies have always been this way. When I was enraptured by an amazing new movie called STAR WARS, my parents and everyone else their age were amused, but no where near as impressed as I was — they felt they had seen it already when it was called FLASH GORDON. Not only that, George Lucas himself admits on Criterion’s DVD of THE HIDDEN FORTRESS that he lifted his basic plot line and several character relationships directly from Kurosawa’s 1958 samurai tale.

SO … lifting scenes and inspiration is nothing new. I think a more important concern is: “How well do they do it?” Tarantino? Pretty damn well. Lucas? Even better. And 20 years after WHEN HARRY MET SALLY was knocked down several pegs for me, I am prepared to hoist it back up. It is a great big hug of a movie with a few classic moments all of its own. I’m not just referring to the Katz’s Deli-gasm either. I am hard pressed to think of any romantic comedy, by Woody or anyone else, with as show-stopping a speech as Harry’s New Years Eve plea to Sally. Go ahead — try to top that moment! You can’t!!

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