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May 2007

Talking about movies: Seasonal fare

By Frank Beaver


I don't think I can remember a time when post-Academy Awards movie releases have been so tepid and uninviting as during the past few months. One of the two recent films I consider a must-see won an Oscar: the mesmerizing Cold War thriller "The Lives of Others." But since then, there have been few critically appreciated domestic films. Heist film "The Lookout," starring Jeff Daniels, was one. And there was the "I-can-turn-them-out-faster-than-Adam-Sandler" comic mayhem of Will Ferrell's "Blades of Glory"—a film whose digitally-derived ice-skating imagery redefined the meaning of screen slapstick.

But the best recent releases have been "The Lives of Others" and "Avenue Montaigne," a French romantic comedy that makes one smile, smile and smile some more. The common elements in these two very different films were their superb development of characters and plots set in a world of creative enterprise— playwriting, acting, music, and art. In their own ways, these movies brought into interplay politics, censorship, artistic neurosis, personal insecurity, love and sex. The result is two films rich in humanity and irony. I'd argue that "The Lives of Others" is one of the best political movies to come our way in a long time.

Now we are about to be bombarded with that slew of film releases which each year, for no particular reason, are lumped together as Summer Movies. Most often this summer fare includes big-budget action films with comicbook heroes like Spiderman and Caribbean pirates. But now it seems that the blockbuster has leapt a full season. Here they come, even though the kids are still in school and theaters haven't yet turned on their air-conditioners. And that's okay.

No matter when they appear I enjoy epics like "Spiderman" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" because I know I'm going to get fun, lively, popcorn-and-Milk Dud movies with amazing new special-effects.

Luckily, the summer promises other offerings that seem worth seeking out. Recently released is Ken Loach's "The Wind that Shakes the Barley," set in the early 1920s about two brothers who are members of the Irish Republican Army. Loach is probably England's most enduring auteur director. His reputation, which began with "Kes" in 1969, has been earned as a filmmaker whose fictional narratives are about the plight of working-class people, delivered to the screen with documentary-like styling. Loach's "Family Life" (1971) told the story of a British couple struggling to find psychological help for their emotionally disturbed daughter. That film became a part of a course I taught at U-M titled Cinematic Realism. "The Wind that Shakes the Barley" has been praised for its authentic development of time, place and character psychology.

Two upcoming films about real-life characters seem intriguing: "La Vie en Rose" (opening June 8) and "Talk to Me" (July 13). "La Vie en Rose" is about the singing career and self-destructive life of French chanteuse Edith Piaf. (I once trekked to Paris' Pere Lachaise Cemetery to find Piaf's grave, and of course Jim Morrison's resting place nearby). Piaf will be portrayed on the screen by Marion Cottilard, who won me over in "A Very Long Engagement (2004). "Talk to Me" stars Don Cheadle as the Washington, DC, disc-jockey "Petey" Greene, Jr., who used his microphone as a spokesperson for the capitol city's African-American citizens. Cheadle is also for me an actor-favorite.

Having just returned from Vietnam where I was able to visit the infamous POW prison "The Hanoi Hilton" (now a Hanoi museum), I'll definitely check out "Rescue Dawn" (July 4). This Werner Herzog film is about an American pilot (Christian Bale) who is shot down in Vietnam and eventually escapes his POW camp. Mostly I'm curious to see what new "life," if any, there is in a 2007 Vietnam War story.

On a much lighter, and I'm hoping happy, note is the remake of "Hairspray" (July 20). Last year in preparation for John Waters' appearance at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival and an afternoon Q and A with University film students and faculty, I re-watched Waters' cult-classic movies beginning with the notorious "Pink Flamingos" (1962). Of all his movies, "Hairspray" (1988) clearly reigns at the top. It's a sweet film about a short, heavyset high school girl in 1960s Baltimore who has both a social and a personal mission: integrating a teen television dance program and "fitting in" with the hip kids who attend the dances. I found the original charming and moving, and I'm hoping the remake can capture that without too much tinkering. (The girl's mother in the 1988 film was played by cross-dresser Divine; now that role has gone to John Travolta. Hmm.)

Finally, Gail Beaver and I will go together to see "Nancy Drew" when it opens June 15. I've heard Gail's childhood memories of the Nancy Drew mysteries since we first met. She loved and admired these teenage books and is curious about the film, and as someone who has only heard about the sleuthful Nancy secondhand, so am I. We'll call it a Summer Date Movie.


Film historian and critic Frank Beaver is professor of film and video studies and professor of communication.

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