Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Up Documentaries (1964-2012 so far)

Every seven years, Michael Apted films the same small group of people and shows us how they’re doing. That’s a very simple overview of the “Up” documentary series which began in 1964 with Seven Up, a half-hour film that focused on the lives of 14 British children from various classes and socioeconomic backgrounds. Apted didn’t actually direct the first film (Paul Almond did, but Apted was a researcher), but directed all the subsequent films, so he knows these people pretty well. (Can you imagine a man wanting to interview and film you every seven years for half a century?) I just finished watching all of the “Up” films, ending with the most recent film, 56 Up (2012) and decided to share a few thoughts. 

The seven-year-old children are asked several questions in Seven Up, such as “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, “Do you want to have children and if so, how many?”, “What do you think of rich/poor people?” and the like. These seem innocent enough questions to ask seven-year-olds, but what’s interesting is how much their answers change or don’t change over a 50-year period. In fact the entire series starts with the Jesuit motto “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man. 

One can view some of the children at age seven and see many characteristics - good and bad - that will shape the rest of their lives. Some live up to their initial expectations, hopes and dreams. Some do not. Some change in remarkable ways. Others don’t. I’m not going to give you any spoilers and I urge you not to look at any online information about any of the participants. Just watch these people move through their lives and try not to reflect on your own life. It’s impossible. 

With that in mind, the staff of our church’s college ministry (I am one of the staff of four) decided to try an experiment. Students and staff watched Seven Up together, then we passed out journals to everyone. We asked them to write about what was going on in their lives at age seven and whether they were aware of God or not at that age. (This is a great exercise; you certainly don’t have to be a Christian to do it and to gain a tremendous amount of understanding from it.) The staff journaled as well. We all wrote for about 20 minutes, then got back together to share some general thoughts. The entire process was private, so no one had to share with the group anything they didn’t want to share. We were all amazed at what we remembered and how those events and memories helped shape us. 

At our next meeting, we watched Seven Plus Seven. For most of the students, they were 14 only seven years ago, and while that seemed not that long ago, so much had changed. We asked them to journal again, focusing on how God had guided and led their lives over the past seven years. At the next meeting, we watched 21 Up, the age (or close to it) that most of the students are now, and journaled. Then two weeks later, we saw 28 Up, and journaled about where we thought God might be leading us in the next seven years (regardless of our ages). 

This was an amazing exercise. It’s not the same experience as having someone film you every seven years, but it does cause you to think about your life, where it’s been, where it’s going, and so much more. While watching the “Up” documentaries, we’re literally watching these people’s lives pass before our eyes. And we’re also watching our own.   

The films are not perfect and Michael Apted will be the first to tell you so. Early on, he realized that the initial films should’ve included more female subjects and certainly should’ve reflected more diversity. (All of the subjects are white, with the exception of one boy who had a black father and white mother.) Apted also admitted in an interview to Roger Ebert that it was very tempting to “play God” and steer certain parts of the film in the direction of where he thought certain characters were going. There’s one participant Apted was convinced was going to end up behind bars, so the director shot some footage of the outside of a prison to use in the next film. The participant did not end up in prison, and Apted humbly learned his lesson.

At several points in the films, Apted is taken to task by the participants (often rightly so) for editing the scenes and interviews to paint an inaccurate picture of their lives. By no means do we get a complete picture of these people. It’s just not possible. That realization is part of what you need to understand going in. By its own nature and popularity on British television and DVDs, the films also can’t help but overshadow any accomplishments the participants might have achieved apart from the films. One participant states (with humorous resignation) in 42 Up, that he hopes he’ll be remembered more for his work than for his participation in the films, but he knows that will never happen. 

What’s fascinating is the number of people who have remained a part of this project. All of them are still living and although two of them have chronic conditions, 56 Up finds most of them in good health. Without giving away too many spoilers, one participant dropped out after 21 Up and has never returned. Some drop out from time to time and return, sometimes to promote some project that they are passionate about. One woman frequently mentions that she loathes the project, but continues to do it out of a sense of obligation. And others seem happy to participate. 

Apted (who has had a long and successful directorial career, directing films such as The World is Not Enough, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Amazing Grace, Gorillas in the Mist, Coal Miner’s Daughter) has stated that he would like to keep the project going at least until the participants turn 70. In the Ebert interview, he stated that his ultimate goal would be to film them through their 84th birthdays. The only problem, Apted stated, would be that he himself at that point, would be 99. 

While each of the films taken on its own is amazing, the films collectively represent something truly mind-boggling. The Up series is, I believe, a masterpiece. No other film or film series that I can think of shows us such snapshots of our lives and allows us to reflect on not only ourselves, but what our lives are all about and what we're doing here. The series is a journey of joy, sorrow, discovery, pain, wonder and more. It's a journey well worth taking. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Trends and New Stuff to Look Forward To

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

(Do I really need to tell you?)

I haven't watched that many movies so far this month, finishing the fifth season of The Sopranos today and rewatching several favorites from years past. Sometimes I just get in the mood to rewatch and right now I've got several lined up that I haven't seen in years or decades, like An American Werewolf in London, The Best Years of Our Lives and Sunset Boulevard and others I watched not that long ago, such as the French heist classic Rififi and the hilarious (but so wrong!) Airplane! 


In some "new releases" news, you never know what those guys at Criterion are going to do, but I'm delighted to see that this June we're going to get both Peter Weir's strange and sensual Picnic at Hanging Rock and Richard Lester's joyous A Hard Day's Night, both to be released in dual format DVD and Blu-ray. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Hardboiled: Film Noir Theater This Saturday at the Library!

Earlier this year, our library system acquired the licensing rights to show selected movies to the public for free. To get things started at our library, I decided to show a couple of examples of classic film noir, calling our event Hardboiled: Film Noir Theater, which - at least for now - meets one Saturday a month. 

For our January movie, we screened Out of the Past (1947) starring Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas. Last month, we watched the John Huston heist film The Asphalt Jungle (1950). The audiences enjoyed these noir films so much, they wanted to see more, so that's exactly what we're giving them. Due to the licensing agreement, I can't tell you the name of the film we'll be watching this Saturday, March 15 at 2:00pm, but I can tell you that it's one of the films listed above. It's also "the stuff that dreams are made of." If you're in the area, please come join us!

Friday, March 07, 2014

Movies Watched in February 2014 Part II

Finishing up from last time, the rest of February’s movies:

Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) Don Coscarelli 

As you can guess from the title, Bubba Ho-Tep is an odd, odd movie, one whose concept I like better than its execution, but even its execution isn’t bad. Here’s the premise: Elvis (Bruce Campbell) is definitely not enjoying his remaining days in a nursing home. Now we immediately know this is either an “alternate universe” Elvis or an Elvis impersonator, right? Ah, not so fast... All is not as it seems. 

And there’s more. Also residing at the home is JFK in the body of an African American man confined to a wheelchair (Ossie Davis). Both men believe an ancient Egyptian ghost is haunting the nursing home. You’ve gotta admit, this isn’t the type of story you see every day. Bubba Ho-Tep doesn’t quite work all the time, but I appreciate its originality and willingness to take chances. (Although I can see some situations - say, after the consumption of several beers - where you might just think Bubba Ho-Tep borders on genius.)


Film Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light (NF 2006) Gary Leva

Better than average documentary chronicling the origins and history of film noir, including several clips from important noir films and commentary from key writers, directors and actors. A good starting point for someone just learning about film noir.


End of Watch (2012) David Ayer

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña play two L.A. cops going about their daily routines when they discover evidence of a large drug cartel, something way bigger than either one of them. I’m typically not a huge fan of cop movies, but I usually like Gyllenhaal’s work and thought highly enough of director David Ayer’s previous work (Training Day) to give this one a shot. I’m glad I did. 


Drinking Buddies (2013) Joe Swanberg

Two couples get together for a weekend getaway, people change partners on the sly, shenanigans ensue. Mostly boring and predictable. Skip this one. 


Ender’s Game (2013) Gavin Hood

It took so long for Ender’s Game to actually get filmed that there was no way it could live up to its own mythos. I remember hearing Orson Scott Card speak about 12 years ago, lamenting that the film would probably never see the light of day due to several issues, chief among them finding believable child actors that were the appropriate age. That’s not really the problem here: Asa Butterfield as Ender, Hailee Steinfeld as Petra, as well as the rest of the child stars are quite good and believable. (I haven’t read the book in a long time, but it seems the kids in the film are a bit older than their counterparts in the book. Again, it’s been awhile, so I could easily be wrong.) I can say, however, that all of the child actors outshine Harrison Ford, who is pretty awful as the colonel in charge of training the kids. 

Ender’s Game suffers from being equal parts engaging and boring. Add to that the fact that so much of the film is grim, bleak, and contains almost no joy whatsoever. Maybe that’s the point, giving us a sort of Full Metal Jacket with kids. What makes the film a weaker endeavor than the book is the fact that the payoff makes way more sense (and has greater impact) in prose than it does visually. I can’t say anymore about it without giving it away. Probably better off to just read the book.  


House of Cards Season Two (TV 2014)

“The road to power is paved with hypocracy and casualties.” - Frank Underwood

No doubt about that. This second season of the Netfilx original series is both addictive and disappointing. If you never saw the first season, you’ll need to view it to understand what’s going on, who these characters are and how they got here. It’s a compelling show, but one that has its share of weak episodes. Season Two starts with a shocker and creates an intensity that, unfortunately, it can’t cash in on completely. There are simply too many plates spinning for too long. Yet don’t let that keep you from continuing with the series. Although I was disappointed with some of the plot elements, the performances are excellent, especially Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. Go ahead and sign me up for Season Three...... 


Nebraska (2013) Alexander Payne

My favorite film seen so far in 2014, which gets a fuller treatment here


Feel free to tell me what you saw in February, good and bad. 

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Movies Watched in February 2014 Part I

When Cindy’s on tour, I tend to watch a lot of movies and this year was no exception. I watched 18 movies and a 13-episode TV series in February, so I have a lot to report. I’ll tackle half of what I watched this time, the other half next time. 

Sleuth (1972) Joseph L. Mankiewicz (3x) 

If you’ve never experienced Sleuth (1972, not the 2007 version), you owe it to yourself to watch two actors, Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, in top form. This one never fails to please. I just wish we had a Blu-ray edition of this fine film...


21 Up (NF 1977)
28 Up (NF 1984)
35 Up (NF 1991) 
42 Up (NF 1998)
49 Up (NF 2005) 
56 Up (NF 2012)

As I mentioned last month, I plan to devote a separate post to this amazing collection of documentary films in the near future. They are all directed by Michael Apted, who has directed a wide variety of films including Coal Miner’s Daughter, The World is Not Enough and Amazing Grace. The Up series follows a group of British children as they move through their lives, with Apted filming them every seven years. Although some individual films are better than others, the series is nothing short of a masterwork. Again, look for more in a future post. 


The Asphalt Jungle (1950) John Huston (2x)

We screened this film at the library last month as part of our Hardboiled: Film Noir Theatre series (which continues on March 15 at 2:00 PM, so stop on by!). Although the biggest name by far in this film is Marilyn Monroe (in only her fourth credited role), she doesn’t really get that much screen time. The next best known actor in the film is James Whitmore (standing in the photo), followed by Sam Jaffe (far left), who is outstanding as the mastermind of a jewelry heist. The rest of the cast is largely B-movie actors, but their performances far exceed those in a typical B-movie. Director John Huston delivers nothing short of a noir masterpiece, one that should get far more attention than it does.  


The Tunnel (2011) Carlo Ledesma

Australia is really putting out some great horror films these days, especially of the “mockumentary” variety, in which The Tunnel firmly belongs. The film, of course, owes a lot to The Blair Witch Project, and like that film, takes its time getting things going. Once weird things start happening (or maybe even before), you’ll be hooked.  


This is Martin Bonner (2013) Chad Hartigan 

This is Martin Bonner is a strange little film made for an estimated $42,000 which is nothing until you realize that it didn’t even gross half that amount in U.S. theaters. Hopefully it’s finding an audience on Netflix streaming; it certainly deserves one. 

Martin has moved from the East Coast to Nevada to start a new life with a tough job: helping ex-cons make the transition to ordinary lives with reputable jobs. There’s much more to it, of course, but I won’t tell you anymore about the plot. Although the movie has several humorous moments, it’s not a comedy. Neither is it a typical “feel good” movie with easy answers and pat solutions, but it’s definitely worth your time. 


Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) Steven Spielberg (5x?)

My favorite Indiana Jones film. I’m sure I’ve seen it more than five times, but five will do for now. (I should’ve written it down so I wouldn’t have to remember!)


Compliance (2012) Craig Zobel NO STARS

Almost a month later, I’m still not sure how I feel about Compliance. Do not take the NO STARS designation to mean that the film has no redeeming value; on the contrary, it’s well-executed in many ways, yet manipulative in others. The subject matter is simply so disturbing that I honestly can’t recommend it, yet I want people to be aware of the problem it addresses. You can read more here

Next time I’ll finish up what I watched in February.