Former Congressman Charlie Wilson, whose top-secret orchestration of the defense of Afghanistan kept that country free and crippled the Soviet Union, died today at age 76. His success in channeling hundreds of millions of dollars to that conflict was revealed years later and became best known through the movie Charlie Wilson’s War, where he was played by Tom Hanks. The movie ended on a poignant note as Wilson was unable to continue the funding that was essential for rebuilding Afghanistan, a failure that was a partial cause of the rise of the Taliban there.
Wilson was also known for his unabashed enjoyment of beautiful women and fine liquor. He will be remembered for his honest common sense and commitment to freedom.
In honor of the Olympics, take a look at these classics about winter sports competitions:
The Cutting Edge A spoiled figure skater (named Kate as in “Taming of the Shrew”) and a working class hockey player team up in this romantic comedy on skates starring Moira Kelly and D.B. Sweeney. This was the first screenplay by “Michael Clayton’s” Tony Gilroy.
Miracle Sportscaster Al Michaels unforgettably called out “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” as the 1980 US Olympic hockey team beat the Russians. They then went on to win the gold medal. And so the team, the last group of amateurs sent by the US to play ice hockey, has been known ever after as the “Miracle on Ice.” Kurt Russell plays coach Herb Brooks and this movie shows us that the real story is better than a miracle because it is about a team that succeeded through heart and hard work and commitment. If it is a miracle, it is in the “God helps those who help themselves” category. Be sure to watch the documentary, “Do You Believe in Miracles?” as well.
Ice Castles A young figure skater on the brink of becoming a champion loses her sight in an accident and has to start all over. Melissa Manchester sings the hit theme song, “Through the Eyes of Love.” The remake, starring Taylor Firth, will be out on DVD this week.
Cool Runnings One of the biggest long shots in history was the Jamaican bobsled team at the 1988 winter Olympics. Yes, Jamaica is a tropical country and no, Jamaica does not have any snow. But a fast start is important in bobsledding and it does have sprinters. The actual footage of the real team’s crash is featured in the film. And while a lot of it is fictional, the grace and panache of the team is based on the real story. And they will be back for the 2010 games.
Downhill Racer Robert Redford plays an arrogant skiier who clashes with his coach (Gene Hackman) in this film, which captures the focus of the athletes and the exhilaration of the sport, filmed on location in the Alps.
Sonja Henie: Queen Of The Ice and It’s a Pleasure Real-life gold medalist Sonja Henie went on to become the highest-paid performer (we won’t say “actress”) in Hollywood for her very successful series of skating films. No one paid any attention to the plots even then, but the skating scenes hold up well and the documentary about her life as an athlete and performer is worth seeing.
I’m guessing that what happened here is that BFFs Jon Favreau (director of Iron Man but here as an actor), Vince Vaughn, and Peter Billingsley (star of A Christmas Story-turned director) decided that it would be a lot of fun to go off to a beautiful island together and so they decided to make it a business trip by creating a story they could film there.
And I am guessing that their home movie of that trip would have been more entertaining than this dull, drawn-out, mess of a film about four couples who go to a resort that is somewhere between “Fantasy Island” and “Dr. Phil.”
These are the kinds of couples with a friendship you only see in movies. They have nothing in common. They do not particularly seem to like each other. They do not appear to know anyone else. And yet, they are always up in each other’s bidness, hugely involved in the tiniest details and decisions, far more than in their own, so much so that they are constantly conference-calling each other on their cell phones, inviting each other to make crucial decisions about their lives. Possibly the hardest to believe, they are not only mandatory attendees at a birthday party held for a very young child of one of the couples, they all wander off in the middle of the party, including the child’s parents, for a power point presentation on one couple’s marital breakdown (apparently a welcome relief following a previous series on the husband’s testicular cancer). The couple (Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell) have arranged for a group rate at a resort and guilt everyone to going along with them: the couple who are distracted with young children (Vaughn and “Watchmen’s” Malin Akerman), the couple who are furious with each other (Favreau and “Sex in the City’s” Kristin Davis), and the recently separated Shane (Faizon Love) with his new 20-year-old girlfriend (Kali Hawk) who calls him “Daddy” and wants to party all the time.
While the other couples planned to relax and enjoy the island, it turns out that the couples counseling is mandatory, starting at sunrise — sort of Dr. Phil boot camp. There is much attempted hilarity from a scantily-clad male yoga instructor getting very up close and personal with both the men and women (a lot of homosexual and adultery panic in this movie) as he demonstrates the poses. There is much attempted hilarity from the counseling sessions and from a child twice confusing a store display with a working toilet. None actually occurs.
Individual scenes drag and the movie as a whole sags. Episodes are thrown together haphazardly and run on forever. There are innumerable references, for some reason, to Applebee’s and there is an extended and pointless, even by the low standards of this film, excruciatingly drawn out game of Guitar Hero. And we are supposed to care about these people and believe that they have actually learned some important lessons about communication and not taking each other for granted. It fails at comedy, it fails at warming our hearts and it fails at making us care enough about any of these characters to want them to work out their problems. Instead, we just keep wishing they would get out of the way and let us enjoy the pretty scenery.
Ann Hornaday has a marvelous article in the Washington Post about one of the most popular themes in movies: weddings.
And why shouldn’t Hollywood love a good wedding? With its swirl of heightened emotions, its simmering leitmotifs of love and loss, fear and hope, all swathed in a frothy confection of pink roses, white butter cream and queen-for-a-day tulle, the wedding provides an irresistible trope, from the ditziest rom-com to the bloodiest gangster epic. It’s a tiny three-act drama in microcosm (the incident-filledrun-up to the ceremony, the ceremony itself, the aftermath) that can give audiences insta-catharsis. And whether a marriage is meant to be or doomed to fail, there’s something viscerally satisfying about a wedding, in all its reassuring ritual….We cherish them not just as classic examples of courtship at its most idealized but also as trenchant social commentaries. If they initially charmed audiences with gorgeous movie stars, dreamy romance and zany comedy, they endure because they’re such revealing reflections of their times.
Hornaday points out that if you search for “wedding” on the Internet Movie Database, you will find “more than 2,157 hits — happily, 500 more than the number for ‘funeral.'”
There are weddings in romance movies, of course, and in comedies and dramas, but you can find them even in gangster movies, war movies, movies for children and movies for adults. Sometimes the main character is the bride or groom but very often the wedding couple are secondary characters and the wedding is just a place for all the drama or comedy or even action to play out. Sometimes a movie wedding is the culmination of the plot because the couple gets married and sometimes it is the culmination of the plot because the ceremony is interrupted. The Baxter makes the guy whose job in the story is to get left at the alter the center of the movie. (One of the highlights is the wonderful Peter Dinklage as a wedding planner.)
Before there were movies, there were fairy tales that often ended with a wedding. Weddings are in the same category as the lost ark or the secret formula or the capturing of the bridge or winning the big game. Love is life’s big adventure and a wedding is the symbol of its ultimate expression. And it is also a lot of fun to see other cultures and traditions. Here are some of my favorite movie wedding scenes. I’d love to hear yours, too.
1. The Godfather One of the greatest American films begins with a wedding reception that gives us unforgettable introductions to the entire cast, their values, and their relationships.
2. The Deer Hunter A agonizing film about the impact of the Vietnam war on three friends begins with an extended wedding scene that establishes the foundation for what is to come by making us not just care about the characters; after that wedding reception, filmed with such intimacy, we almost feel like part of the family.
3. The Philadelphia Story My all-time favorite movie is this sophisticated and witty story about the forthcoming wedding of a wealthy woman to an executive with political ambitions. Complications ensue when a reporter, a photographer, and her ex-husband show up for the festivities.
4. The Graduate A very few movies seem to express and even shape the themes of their time. And a small fraction of those hold up over time as works of art. “The Graduate” leads that category with brilliant direction from Mike Nichols, a haunting soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel, and superb performances by Dustin Hoffman as Ben, the title character, who symbolizes the disaffection of his generation and Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson, the friend of his parents who symbolizes the emptiness of hers. When Ben finds something meaningful in a relationship with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, he ends up disrupting her wedding in a scene that has become iconic.
5. Four Weddings and a Funeral Screenwriter Richard Curtis based this on his own experience of finding himself at a seemingly endless stream of weddings. Charlie (Hugh Grant, in a star-making role) meets Carrie (Andie MacDowell) at the first of the weddings and their relationship evolves over the rest of the title ceremonies. But this is really the story of Charlie and his friends, all of whom find love by (but sometimes not until) the closing credits.
6. Bend it Like Beckham Parminder Nagra plays Jesminder, the daughter of a traditional Punjabi Sikh family in London who wants to play soccer. Her sister’s wedding plans provide a context for her struggles against her family’s reluctance to let her play, especially when it turns out that the soccer finals are at the same time.
7. Lovers and Other Strangers The wedding at the center of this film is the setting for a wide variety of happy and sad, healthy and dysfunctional love relationships among the extended family, played by a stand-out cast including Gig Young, Cloris Leachman, Anne Meara, Bea Arthur, and Anne Jackson. The Carpenters’ standard, “For All We Know” was written for this film.
8. Father of the Bride There has never been a more beautiful bride than Elizabeth Taylor in this affectionate comedy about the impact of a wedding on the family. Spencer Tracy plays the beleaguered father who is expected to pay endless bills and endure endless relatives on both sides. The scene where he comforts her after she (briefly) breaks off the engagement is one of my very favorites.
9. Fiddler on the Roof This classic musical based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem about a small Jewish village in late 19th century Russia. The main character is a poor milkman who has a lot of challenges in marrying off three of his daughters. The themes of tradition and change in the romances of the three daughters and in the community at large come together in the warm and loving wedding celebration (with the lovely song “Sunrise, Sunset”).
10. My Big Fat Greek Wedding Inspired by the real-life experience of Nia Vardalos, the daughter of Greek immigrants, this touching and hilarious story of a shy young woman in a big, noisy family who finds love with a kind-hearted teacher, leading to some confusion and misunderstandings but also a lot of laughter and new connections.
And don’t forget: The Wedding Crashers, The Runaway Bride, Rachel Getting Married, It Happened One Night, Goodbye, Columbus, Confetti, Cousins, and the French movie it was based on, “Cousin, Cousine.”