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The Diary of Anne Frank/Mid-August Lunch (2009)

As with most of the films in the 2009 revisit so far, I had very little idea of what Mid-August Lunch would be about. I might have read the one-sentence Netflix descriptor, but I was basing my inclusion of it almost entirely on title, poster, and the fact I knew it was Italian.

Why then, would I tag that movie along with The Diary of Anne Frank, a film I not only already knew about, but a film that I had seen most of a few years ago (when it aired on PBS in the US)? It was mostly random, I suppose, and I figured that if I had no reason to discuss them together, I could always review them separately. Fortunately for my viewing experience, there was a connection. Don’t you love it when that happens?

Anne Frank, for those of you who don’t know, was a 13-year-old when she went into hiding with her family in 1940s Amsterdam. She hid because she was Jewish. Her life, which was already set to change because she was entering adolescence, was about to be flipped upside down by Hitler and war. During these teenage years in which most people learn life isn’t fair, the lesson would be even harsher for her.

Neither film is particularly plot-heavy. The majority of The Diary of Anne Frank takes place in one location, and for better or worse, the film is much more focused on characters and the interplay therein. Asked to describe what Mid-August Lunch is about, I would say, “food, money, and old people,” and I would be 100% correct. A man takes in three old ladies as favors he owes for not being able to pay rent or bills. And that’s all that happens, really.

The major link between these two films is that they’re both about loneliness.

The teenage angst in The Diary of Anne Frank is often obvious and overdone, and the tension is occasionally forced. Sometimes, it fails to be anything but a scope-less portrait of a growing girl. But it tells a human story, and it does it well for the most part. This isn’t a thriller reenactment or a war epic. It’s an adaptation of the actual diary of Anne Frank, and therefore relies completely on the small things, and whether or not you’ll buy and appreciate them.

Anne (played exceptionally well by Ellie Kendrick) is lonely. She claims no one understands her. These are basic youth complaints, but the fact that it is set against the dreadful background of World War II is what made her writings artifacts, and what makes her special.

The old ladies in Mid-August Lunch are lonely, if not completely alone, as well. Their families neither need nor want them. Gianni takes them in because he’s being forced to, but by the time comes for them to leave, he’ll only let them go if he’s forced to.

In that movie, people find each other and they do live happily-ever-after. In The Diary of Anne Frank, however, things a little more complicated. People find each other, then drift apart, then get angry at each other, then make up and do it all again, because they’re living together in a confined space that wasn’t really meant for living.

But the beautiful tragic truth of the whole film is that they are lucky, as a few characters exclaim with surprising hope throughout the film. They’re lucky not only to still have each other, but also the not be dead yet. And even though their case is special and much more dire, the same goes for the characters in Mid-August Lunch and for us all.

The Diary of Anne Frank: It is at its best when it reaches beyond the trite melodrama and lets Anne be flawed and hit real emotion. Great performances from Kendrick, Iain Glen as Otto Frank, and Tim Dantay as Mr. Kugler. I take or leave Geoff Breton as Peter. 3/4.

Mid-August Lunch: A fun, lively, but modestly paced slice-of-life film that explores people’s need to be needed. Lead actor/director/screenwriter Gianni Di Gregorio seems to be talented in all his roles. 3/4.

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Fish Tank (2009)

Mia is reckless. She picks fights with girls without justification. When she sees a nice horse, she tries to steal it. Her life has no direction. Is it nature or nuture? Her mother, who is perhaps more reckless and less sympathetic, says “it’s like she came out looking for trouble.”

That’s just the thing Mia’s mother (Kierston Wareing) would say. She’s an abusive single parent (living in a housing complex) who likes to party and rarely has an intelligent thought. She begins seeing a security guard at a home improvement store, Connor, but there are no scenes between them that say they’ll last. There is no connection.

Meanwhile, Mia (newcomer Katie Jarvis), a teen, has taken up hip-hop dance, after seeing a skank she hates do it poorly. The first scene in which she dances doesn’t really flatter her limited skills. But she tries again, in front of the TV (tuned to a Ja Rule music video) one morning, in her pajamas. That’s when she meets her mother’s boyfriend.

Her mother acts differently around Connor (Michael Fassbender) than she does around her daughters, Mia and Tyler (Jarvis and Rebecca Griffiths, respectively); she’s much less abusive.

During one of her mother’s parties, and while her nine-year-old sister was upstairs drinking and smoking with a friend, Mia gets overly intoxicated and passes out in her mother’s room. (Her mother only cares because she’s in her room.) It’s Connor who picks her up, takes her to her room, and covers her with a blanket. It’s a simple act of kindness, but it might have been the first kind thing anyone has done for Mia in a long time.

One day, Connor takes Mia and Tyler along with their mother on one of their long drives (to the dismay of Mia’s mother). They drive to a pond, where Connor takes his shoes off and announces he’ll be entering the water to catch a fish. Mia’s mother and sister ridicule him, but Mia joins him. And while Mia and Connor try (and succeed) to catch a fish, Mia’s mother and sister continue to call them names. Their comments do nothing but try to put them down. Connor occasionally teases Mia over the course of the film, but his comments are never meant to hurt her.

There is a clear lack of ambition among the residents of the complex, including the three women at the heart of the story. Connor even asks the girls what animal they would want to come back as in a future life. Each of them chooses an animal that stays on the ground, while he says he would want to be a bald eagle. “Wouldn’t you want to fly?” he asks.

[Spoilers begin here.]

But Mia can change. We see that she’s an observer. The scene with the dancing skank, spying on her mother and Connor, the horse (whose owner she develops a relationship with), Connor’s yard and house… director Andrea Arnold makes it clear that she’s not just a poor, dumb girl who wasn’t taught any better.

It becomes apparent, at one point, after Connor does many kind things in a row for her, that she’s falling for him. And him for her. Even though they’re both immature in their own ways, they have some brains. Arnold shows us Mia dancing once again, this time in front of Connor and with his favorite song (which is turning into her favorite song). Arnold likes to put her characters in dimly lit places, and perhaps it was just the late evening lighting, but Mia actually looked like a good dancer. She looked like she was in a stylish music video, living the dream.

Mia, a 15-year-old, and Connor, a 30-year-old, become intimate.

The next day, Connor is gone. Mia’s mother is bawling, and Mia tries to find him.

She traces him to a suburban home a few miles from her town. And once Mia realizes that Connor has a wife/live-in girlfriend and a child, she turns into an animal… peeing on what she perceives as her property, taking her jealousy and frustration out on his little girl, who she kidnaps. The child even says “you’re starting to scare me now.” This innocent little girl is threatening this thing she likes, and what is her plan?

What is ever her plan? She tries to steal the pretty white horse twice, and fails both times. But what if she succeeded? What would she do with it?

After a water scene that contrasts beautifully with the scene back at the pond, Mia comes to her senses. It’s both devastating and reassuring. Finally, she’s doing a somewhat mature thing. There are no grand speeches, no lightbulbs. She gives the child back, and moves on.

The next day, she has an audition as an erotic dancer. Only she doesn’t know about the erotic part until she sees the girl before her. The tape on Mia’s audition is Connor’s favorite song, and half in retaliation toward him, and half because she doesn’t want to be an erotic dancer, she storms out. Two mature things in a row. The film could have ended right there.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t. A few more things happen, none of them effective or satisfying. Part of this is because we never got a good sense of the person who “rescues” her from the housing complex, the owner of the horse she tried to steal. The film patches up what had cracked, for no apparent reason but to have a happy ending.

3.5/4

Notes:

  • I wondered if Mia’s mother still talks to her parents.
  • Tyler acts differently around Connor, as well. Her foul mouth cleans up a bit.
  • How quickly Mia goes from the hunter (of “Kira”) to the hunted (by Connor), and from unhappy to happy to unhappy, again. At one point, Tyler gives the opinion that anything that can fly can be shot down easily.
  • Next week: Mid-August Lunch and The Diary of Anne Frank.

The Best 10 Films of the 1940s (That I Have Seen)

Today, we continue the best of the decade feature. Two down, seven to go. This week, please accept my picks for the ten best/favorite/top/whatever films from the 1940s. Enjoy and feel free to comment with your own picks.

10. The Philadelphia Story

This past weekend, I had a chance to see The Descendants, which was excellent. When it came time to draw up this list, and I selected The Philadelphia Story as one of my nominees, I kept getting reminded of the craziness and chaos in The Descendants. Both movies perfectly capture the little misunderstandings that happen daily. It also helps (again, I’m talking about both films) if you have a talented all around cast. Runner-up: The Spiral Staircase.

9. Casablanca

Why so low? I actually think Casablanca is overrated. It doesn’t currently hold my highest star rating (****), but instead the second-best (***1/2). But I’m not saying it’s a bad movie… not at all. It’s classically gorgeous and beautifully emotional, but I feel how much you’ll like the film is based on how much you believe the one flashback scene served up near the beginning of the film.

1940

1944

8. Gaslight/Gaslight

No, that’s not the title of the film. I’m referring to two separate films. (Sorry, Prozac Paul!) The 1944 edition of Gaslight was my favorite film for years. And then I saw the 1940 version, and didn’t know what to think. Now, I just lump them together, because no one wants to see the same film on the list twice. (Note: if they’re available on Netflix, they’ll definitely be a double-feature in a film festival in April.)

Caption contest, anyone?

7. Double Indemnity

I’m not sure if I’ve told you this before, but Billy Wilder is one of my two favorite directors of all-time (we’ll get to the next one in a little while). While this isn’t my favorite film of his (it might actually just miss a Top 3 list), I still love it. It makes a near-perfect double-feature with Sunset Blvd., and I would definitely suggest checking out all of Wilder’s other work if you happen to like Double Indemnity.

6. Shadow of a Doubt

The reason making a favorite/best films of all-time list is so hard is this movie. Not necessarily only this movie, but movies like this one. Shadow of a Doubt is a film I’ve seen about six times, and it’s one of Hitchcock’s harder movies to stop watching in the middle (even if you know what’s going to happen, it’s addicting). Just like with DI, it’s not the best movie one of my favorite directors ever made, but I have an extraordinary attachment to it. Fun fact: bestness is in the eye of the beholder, because it is Hitchcock’s personal favorite.

5. The Bicycle Thief

I rewatched Never Let Me Go, one of my favorites from 2010, two weeks ago; and just as I was reminded of The Descendants by The Philadelphia Story, I was reminded of Never Let Me Go by The Bicycle Thief (just now, when I started writing this sentence). These films are, by far, the two most tragic I have ever seen. I’m a sucker for tragedy, but I really appreciate it when a movie is subtle, like the ending of these two. But let’s settle this one: is it The Bicycle Thief, A Bicycle Thief, or Bicycle Thieves?

4. Brief Encounter

This is just a beautiful movie. Plain and simple. Please look it up now. I’d tell you what it’s about, but you’d just call it sappy.

3. The Great Dictator

This is one of my favorite all-time Chaplins. I can’t pick my single favorite scene from it because I have no single favorite scene. This is surprising because, like most of Chaplin’s better work, The Great Dictator is a coherent that has plenty of memorable single moments.

There has been some criticism, though, of the film’s ending, and I’d like to defend it. (It’s been almost 72 years since it was released, so I’ll just assume everyone has already seen it.) In the end, the barber/tramp gets mistaken for Hynkle/Hitler, and is forced to make a speech. In this speech, Charles Chaplin presents his own views to the camera and to the world. It’s not funny and some would say it doesn’t fit in with the tone of the rest of the piece. But this is Hitler we’re not-so-subtly talking about. The whole movie skewers him anyway. Chaplin said what he thought had to be said and he was right (by me, at least) to include that.

2. The Best Years of Our Lives

1. Citizen Kane

It was a close one between The Best Years of Our Lives and Citizen Kane for #1, and I cannot promise that the reason I chose Kane wasn’t because I saw it last. But this is my list: flawed and imperfect. Some, including me, would say that there is no perfect film. If forced to choose a film to argue that it is, however, I would probably choose one of these. Neither is a particularly short or easy work to watch, but somehow the hours seems to melt away gladly. I don’t know if dramas are supposed to be fun, but when their quality is this high, I don’t know how they can’t be.

Best Picture of the 1970s, Phase Three (Second Elimination)

Okay, a few movies have been eliminated. Now, pick the 15 worst films… again!

Citizen Kane (1941)

****

Citizen Kane is the definition of visually striking. The way it transitions between scenes is something I’ve never seen before. The visual tricks are stupefying.

The shadows and smoky atmosphere of the early newsroom scene are wonderful. Shadows are used in other scenes to emphasize other parts of the shot. But the reporter is always in the dark. This world is not about the people who write the news, it’s about the people who are the news.

Citizen Kane is the story of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), who is sent away from his home at a very early age. He soon becomes a newspaper tycoon, and has more power than he knows what to do with. His story is told through various flashbacks.

This giant character starts off in his place. He’s just another character in another movie. But then he derails (oh, don’t worry, that’s a good thing). He’s bigger than the movie. He’s bigger than news. He’s bigger than his own giant palace (demonstrated clearly when he destroys part of it).

There are so many things to see in each scene. You can’t even check Twitter for two seconds to see who won what Emmy. The way the film tells the story through imagery is amazing. It shows time passing by showing a sled that has gathered snow. It shows how big and frightening Mr. Thatcher is to a young Kane by comparing him visually to a Christmas tree (I loved the mirrored sequence much later in the film, too). We see the Inquirer men reflected through the Chronicle window, and we see how the circulation of the papers differ. (The movie in general makes good use of windows and mirrors.) We see the campaign headquarters from the ground, where streamers are laying in piles of major disappointment. I would love to go on and on, which I will, when I do my “Required Viewing” on it.

The dialogue is often chaotic (again, in a good way), but the foreshadowing lines carry gravitas. There appears to be a lot of drama in the newspaper business. In the incredible breakfast time-lapse scene, we see that all Kane and his new wife talk about is the newspaper. During that two minute-long scene, we see Kane go from good-humored to bitter.

His looks evolve as he becomes more and more obsessed with power, and it’s not just regular aging. There’s something more there. He doesn’t become more evil with age, just grumpier. The younger Kane uses media to fight corruption and help the average person. He’s very humble. The older Kane jumps outside of the media business altogether, seeking power elsewhere.

I never cease to be amazed by the power and beauty of cinema. I had heard how wonderful Citizen Kane was. Words can’t really describe the awe I felt while watching it. It is truly unique. Before I saw this, I wasn’t able to pick just one best picture of all time. And now I am. You must see this movie.

Notes:

  • “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a good man.”
  • “Don’t tell me you’re sorry.”
  • The second Mrs. Kane is overwhelmed.
  • I would like to mention the giant palace once again.
  • Citizen Kane is being re-released now in a 70th Anniversary version.
  • If you see and enjoy Citizen Kane, you might also enjoy Gone with the Wind and The Social Network.
  • Next time: my review of Moneyball

Top 20 Films I Could Watch Anytime

Disclaimer: I am stealing this idea from here. You should click on that link after you’re done reading this post.

This top 20 list is pretty self-explanatory. When these movies are on cable, I’ll watch them. When I don’t feel like processing a new movie, and I want to watch something good, I’ll watch them. My criteria: happy, funny, engaging.

Just missed the list: The Thin Man (1934), The Out-of-Towners (1970), Toy Story 2 (1999), Up (2009), How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

20. Ice Age (2002) – Very fun, has great characters, is kind of a road-trip movie

19. Herbie Rides Again (1974) – Not the strongest Disney movie ever, but a classic in my family (that’s a whole ‘nother post that I’ll get to someday)

18. It Should Happen to You (1954) – One of my favorite all-time Jack Lemmon films

17. The Return of the Pink Panther (1975) – Interesting mix of kinds of comedies

16. The Fugitive (1993) – It only jumps the shark at the end… the rest is very, very entertaining

15. Meet the Robinsons (2007) – Underrated Disney movie that’s full of interesting plot twists

14. The Hangover (2009) – It’s never on any of the channels I get, but if it were…

13. No Country for Old Men (2007) – This movie isn’t necessarily happy, but it’s so great that it doesn’t matter.

12. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) – I think The Prisoner of Azkaban was better. But, come on! Lord Voldemort!

11. Beetle Juice (1988) – Alec Baldwin is my favorite.

10. The Gods Must Be Crazy (1981) – So clever, so funny

9. Airplane! (1980) – What a great screwball comedy! [Insert famous phrase from movie here.]

8. Home Alone (1990) – It doesn’t have to be Christmas for me to enjoy this movie.

7. The Social Network (2010) – The movie is so fascinating, and the characters are so real, I can watch this movie multiple times in one day. Incredible.

6. A Christmas Story (1983) – It starts at Thanksgiving. We watch it once then. I’ll see it twice from then until Christmas. I’ll watch it thrice in late December, usually twice on Christmas Eve itself. Once in February or March. Maybe another time in July or August, when it’s hot out.

5. My Cousin Vinny (1992) – Joe Pesci. Marisa Tomei. Hilarity. When the movie is slow, they pull it through. I’ll watch it every time it’s on.

4. That Darn Cat! (1965) – Another family classic, and one of the best live action Disney movies ever.

3. Some Like it Hot (1959) – This is probably my favorite movie. And it makes no sense.

2. Star Wars (1977) – Imagine life without Star Wars. Every time you skip over it with your remote, a nerd movie lover dies. There you go.

1. Meet the Parents (2000) – Stop typing your expletive-filled comment, and calm down. It’s not the best movie ever. It’s not the best movie on this list. But we can all agree that it’s solid Sunday afternoon entertainment, especially if you hate watching your favorite football teams lose.