Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Six movies that fit the holiday season

Title: Home for the Holidays (1995)
Director: Jodie Foster
Language: English
Rating: PG-13

In spite of its premise - woman visits bonkers family for Thanksgiving - the movie isn't a standard, sitcom-like holiday comedy. The main character, Claudia (Holly Hunter), reconnects with some of her family, runs up against resentment and anger, and falls in love with her brother's guest, Leo (Dylan McDermott) - but these developments don't feel contrived. The actors inhabit the movie naturally, as if they aren't putting on a performance.

I like the exploration of the family, the ways in which they're close or have fractured. Claudia and her brother, Tommy (Robert Downey Jr.), cling to each other as the unconventional children, while their sister, Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson), is perpetually on the outside and profoundly unhappy; she's married, has two kids, helps her aging parents, and so one would think she'd be comfortably settled at the heart of her family, but she seethes with stress and joylessness, pushing people away while also living with unnamed betrayals (including self-betrayal).

Among the older actors, like Anne Bancroft and Geraldine Chaplin, there are also strong performances, especially Chaplin's heartbreaking, eccentric character, also a family outsider. The filmmakers don't let the movie get melodramatic, though. There's restraint to the anger and pain, and there's plenty of light-heartedness and some moments that made me laugh. Though Claudia's life is in a bit of an upheaval, she has good things going for her; she's smart and fierce, and has a close relationship with her teenaged daughter, Kitt (Claire Danes). Not all is right in the world, but there's enough that's good.

Title: I Remember Mama (1948)
Director: George Stevens
Language: English and some Norwegian
Rating: Unrated

The movie centers on the matriarch of a Norwegian immigrant family living in San Francisco in the early 20th century. She's played by Irene Dunne as practical, devoted, steadfast, and sharp, her influence present in everyone's lives - such as when her older daughter, Katrin (Barbara Bel Geddes), has dreams of becoming a writer.

I Remember Mama is warm but not cloying. It's spiced with enough humor and character complexity to keep it from becoming too sentimental.

Title: The Incredibles (2004)
Director: Brad Bird
Language: English
Rating: PG

This is a humorous action movie about a family of superheroes who have to hide their talents and try to blend into American suburbia. Except hiding is no longer an option, when a villain is seeking them out to test their powers against his formidable technology.

Instead of focusing only on the father, Bob Parr a.k.a. Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), the movie has his character development run parallel to his wife's, Helen, a.k.a. Elastigirl (voiced by Holly Hunter). He learns to appreciate his family more (even in their mundane moments) and work alongside them, while she comes to understand that suppressing one's power, denying one's self, will only hurt in the long-run. As they develop, their children benefit too, particularly Violet (voiced by Sarah Vowell), who initially has no confidence in her abilities and uses them only to hide.

The villain is interesting too, or at least his plans are. Because while his motivations are rooted in bitterness, and his actions are diabolical, there's also an upside to providing people with technology that could give them enhanced powers (I still don't think it would put everyone on an equal footing, as some would use their technology more adeptly or to a better purpose than others).

Title: Lilo & Stitch (2002)
Director: Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
Language: English and Hawaiian
Rating: PG

There's so much that works well in this movie: the humor and playfulness, the sci-fi elements, the thoughtful presentation of Hawaiian culture, the exploration of loss and how people form and sustain a family. It's a movie geared towards kids, but with enough wit and complexity to make it worth watching for adults.

Stitch is a small destructive creature, the result of a genetic experiment from an alien civilization presided over by an imposing Grand Councilwoman. In his flight from capture, he ends up on Earth, and more specifically Hawaii, where he crosses paths with Lilo (voiced by Daveigh Chase), an unusual girl who's an orphan cared for by her older sister, Nani (voiced by Tia Carrere). Nani, who's roughly college-aged, has to prove to child services that she can be a fit guardian for Lilo. The social worker checking up on them is a mysterious and intimidating man, Cobra Bubbles (voiced by Ving Rhames, and with Rhames' physique), the movie's most entertaining minor character; he says things like, "Thus far you have been adrift in the sheltered harbor of my patience." There are also poignant scenes, like the one where Nani sings "Aloha ╩╗Oe" to Lilo when they might have to part.

Title: Peter Pan (2003)
Director: P.J. Hogan
Language: English
Rating: PG

This is the best adaptation of Peter Pan I've seen so far. It's vibrant and beautiful, and thoughtful about the story's themes. It's full of fierce tenderness and joy and wonder.

The child actors know how to act. Jeremy Sumpter brings vulnerability to Peter, and Rachel Hurd-Wood gives Wendy Darling a glowing quality. The filmmakers show the aliveness of a happy childhood, the spirit of adventure and the pleasures savored moment-by-moment with little thought of the future.

Jason Isaacs is also tremendous as Hook. As Peter shows the limitations of childhood, Hook displays a stunted adulthood, in which there isn't any child-like joy, only the possibility of bitter loneliness and a consuming fear of mortality. Isaacs, known to many people as Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter movies, also makes for a disturbingly attractive Hook, presenting some of the allure of adulthood along with its dangers. As in traditional adaptations of Peter Pan, he plays Mr. Darling as well, portraying him as a meek, tightly wound man who's not always in touch with his finer feelings.

Title: The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Director: Victor Fleming (and a few other uncredited contributors, like King Vidor and George Cukor)
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

As a kid, I didn't have an interest in black and white movies (except for some of Charlie Chaplin's), so I loved the moment where Dorothy leaves Kansas and steps into the colorful world of Oz. I still do.

I've re-watched the movie a couple of times as an adult and appreciate the music and humor in it more. I like how Judy Garland sings "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," shaping it beautifully. I also like the ridiculousness of Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion (who has the second best song in the movie, the operatic "If I Were King of the Forest"), and Frank Morgan as the shameless Wizard ("Frightened? Child, you're talking to a man who's laughed in the face of death, sneered at doom, and chuckled at catastrophe... I was petrified"). And there are all the details that stick in my mind: the shimmery pink outfit Glinda (Billie Burke) wears, the twitchy Lollipop Guild dance, the vicious apple trees and flying monkeys; and as a kid I remember being afraid of the menacing red hourglass the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) uses on Dorothy.

Mostly, the movie works for me because it's weird in a delightful way and the songs are consistently good. And there are moments of beauty, like when Dorothy first sets foot in a world of glistening color.

Bonus recommendation: Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), which I reviewed here.