No one is better than Steve Carell at playing clenched. In “Dan in Real Life,” he plays a character so clenched he just about levitates off the ground. Dan is an advice columnist and a single parent. He cares for his three daughters. He provides warm and witty counsel to the lonely hearts who write in for help. But his own lonely heart feels like it has been on hold for four years, since his wife died. Dan is holding on to what he has left as hard as he can; a little too tightly, according to the two older daughters. He is not quite ready to let Jane (Alison Pill) drive. And he is not even close to ready to let 15-year-old Cara (Brittany Robertson) have a boyfriend, even one who calls him “sir.” It’s as if he lets go of them, if he lets go of anything, he might experience another devastating loss. So, he subsists on tight smiles and denial, tossing off a few gentle wisecracks to try to pretend to the girls and to himself that everything is just fine.
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I grew up in Chicago, a city that really knows how to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. There’s the parade, of course, and every year they dye the Chicago River green. And every year WGN shows The Quiet Man, the unabashed love letter to Ireland made by director John Ford with John Wayne and Irish and Irish-American actors like Maureen O’Hara and Barry Fitzgerald. Some people think the movie is sexist, but they ignore the movie’s key themes about how important it is for both men and women to believe that they bring something important to the relationship. In the words of Michaleen Oge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald), it is about a love story that is impetuous and Homeric. It has passion, humor, glorious Technicolor, and one of the greatest fight scenes ever put on film. It’s a great way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
Jerry Seinfeld will always be remembered for creating a brilliant and beloved television show about…nothing. His unbreakable rule was “no learning, no hugging.” Popular sitcoms had always been about learning and hugging and “very special episodes.” But Seinfeld created four intensely self-absorbed characters and if we did not exactly care about them, we were captivated by them. Now, he and some of the “Seinfeld” show writers have created an animated movie aimed at children. There is some hugging and learning involved but it is still as close to being about nothing as it can be.
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Pioneering documentarian Frederick Wiseman is one of the key developers of what is sometimes called “observational” or “direct” cinema. These days, our concept of documentaries is often shaped by Michael Moore or Al Gore, unabashedly advocacy movies that are more like op-ed pieces than journalism. But Wiseman’s interest in institutions of all kinds, from mental hospitals to high schools, from high end department stores to welfare offices, from making decisions with and about patients at the end of life to the efforts of people with disabilities to achieve independence, from people on welfare to state legislators, from missile-makers to high-fashion models, all are displayed in forthright documentaries that tell their stories without narration.
While there is no such thing as complete objectivity in any story-telling and Wiseman himself is the first to admit that he shapes his stories with his choice of structure, the order and the positioning of the cuts, his movies have a kind of directness and intimacy that lets us experience what he shows us in our own way, without relying on anyone telling us what to think about what we are seeing. He does not interact with his subjects. He lets them tell their own stories, not by speaking to us directly but by becoming so comfortable with his camera that they let us see them as they are.
Wiseman’s films have sometimes been controversial. His first documentary, “Titticut Follies,” is a searing expose of a Massachusetts mental hospital. It was banned from release and restricted in its showing to anyone but educators and students by a court order on the grounds that it violated the patients’ rights to privacy, despite the fact that Wiseman had received permission from all of the people portrayed in the film or else their legal guardian. The film’s unblinking portrayal of the abusive and neglectful treatment of the patients may have been the reason for the ruling. In 1992, it was allowed to be shown on PBS.
The films are available on DVD at a modest price for individuals. For a limited time, Wiseman’s films are available to public libraries at a discount.
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