Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Surprise, Surprise...

Since I now average only one new entry per week, I have rather more films to choose from, compared to the early days when, in my initial enthusiasm, I was blogging nearly every day.  One advantage of this increased choice is that it allows me to select from the available candidates the best of the bunch or the most esoteric or occasionally the most pleasant surprises.  The past week has been one of those fortuitous ones where the box office big hitters left me either cold or indifferent, but where I found some pleasure amongst the least likely candidates. Let's look at two of them:

Sister Mary Explains it All (2001): This cable movie distributed by Showtime was a complete unknown to me, but certainly the sort of film that one either loves or hates.  Directed by Marshall Brickman (responsible for the classic Woody Allen scripts for "Sleeper", "Annie Hall", and "Manhattan" amongst others) and starring Allen's erstwhile muse Diane Keaton, it is a viciously satiric look at traditional Catholic doctrines written by the author of the original stage play.  Keaton plays a bigoted, by-the-book nun, who has given the same (more or less) lecture every Christmas Eve to a congregation of brainwashed ex-students and current students.  She stridently outlines the meaning of heaven, hell, and limbo and keeps a record-book of those bound for damnation, including Elizabeth Taylor, Mick Jagger, and many more.  She uses a cherubic seven-year old student to fetch her water and cookies and to parrot out his catechism when instructed, for which she may occasionally reward him with one of her half-eaten cookies like some kind of pet monkey. 

Into this year's 25th anniversary lecture come four former students in costume; we first met them as youngsters performing a nativity play -- Mary, Joseph, and a two-humped camel.  Now in their thirties, they need to return to let Sister Mary discover just how messed up their lives have been as a result of her strict teachings and her sadistic meanness.  The two men are played by TV actors Brian Benben and Wallace Langham, an unhappily married father of two and a open but happy homosexual respectively.  The two women are Laura San Giacomo who has had two abortions and Jennifer Tilly an unmarried mother.  As they paraphrase Sister Mary's teachings and how these have left them unfit to cope with life by her inflexible standards, Keaton reacts with horror and the four of them begin to regress into the children they once were. The audience does not at first understand the damage she has inflicted, not only on these four and but on them themselves.  Without giving too much away, the movie finishes with two of the four dead and Sister Mary lost in the throes of religious ecstasy.

While this film is probably more likely to be of interest to those who 'suffered' a parochial education themselves, it is definitely worth seeing for Keaton's amazing turn.  Her performance verges on being well over the top, but she creates such a horrible gargoyle of a character that her every word and movement is transfixing.  In a long and varied career, this is surely one of her most accomplished roles.

Everything Must Go (2010):  I won't go on at the same length about this movie, except to say that as a Will Ferrell starrer I was expecting to hate it, since I have had little tolerance for most of his films that many people find hilarious. However to draw an analogy with those people who say they like Woody Allen's 'early funny' films, I must confess that I personally prefer Ferrell in a serious mode.  I thought he was wonderful in "Melinda and Melinda" (2004) and especially in "Stranger than Fiction" (2006).  In both of these and in the movie in question, he proves that he is a versatile actor -- not just a clown.  Here he plays a relapsed alcoholic who, on the day that he is fired from his lucrative job, returns home to find his wife decamped, the locks changed, and all of his possessions dumped on the front lawn. How he copes with the loss of status, money (his credit cards have been stopped and his bank account frozen), home life, and ultimately his material possessions, is the meat of this movie.  It is a surprisingly sour and depressing scenario, but is certainly not the comedy that one associates with this actor, despite its eventual hopeful and upbeat ending.  Ferrell is well supported by Rebecca Hall as a new neighbour, Laura Dern as a long-lost high school friend, and young black actor Christopher C.J. Wallace, as the 'fat' kid that helps him pick up the pieces of his fractured life.

There was one other 'surprise' that I would like to mention briefly, although I doubt that it is widely available: "Sita Sings the Blues" (2008) is a brilliant, colourful, psychedelic piece of animation from Nina Paley, based on the Indian saga "The Ramayana" and featuring jazz vocals by Annette Hanshaw. If ever it comes your way, don't miss this unique treat. 

Finally in closing I must report that I re-watched Sidney Lumet's "The Group" for the umpteenth time.  Although it is based on a different generation of Vassar graduates than my own, there was so much that resonated.  As my 'brother' Oli wrote on the flyleaf when he gave me a copy of Mary McCarthy's novel: "When I saw the pennant on the wall I asked her 'If you went to Vassar what are you doing in a whorehouse?' 'Just lucky I guess' she replied."  Cheers, Oli   
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