Posted by: Sally Ingraham | December 8, 2010

Movie Mayhem: Dec. 1st – Dec. 7th

We finally set up the home theater system in our new place, complete with a Roku Player for instant streaming, and I must say it is blissful to watch movies again. The first movie I watched this month I found on TV though, and due to the luxury of 3 months of free DVR service, I was able to record it and watch it at my leisure – fast-forwarding through those darn commercials! I revisited some old favorites, indulging in a sci-fi afternoon (to work the quirks out of the speaker setup of course!) and aside from viewing Fantastic Four (Tim Story-USA-2005) I knocked out Iron Man (Jon Favreau-USA-2008), and Star Trek (J. J. Abrams-USA-2009) for the last time this year I hope (dare I admit that I’ve watched Iron Man 3 times and Star Trek 4 times this year, not including the times I watched parts of the movies before falling asleep…?)

Possession (Neil LaBute-USA-2002) was being played on TV during Ovation Channel’s Tall Dark and Steamy marathon a few weeks ago. Having recently read a great review of the book, I was more than curious. The movie, while interesting, seemed a little flat and I had the distinct feeling that a great deal must have been left out. Maybe not plot points, but detail. (I also have to wonder if the movie was parred down to fit a 2 hour TV block…) When I get around to reading the book, I’m sure I will be mesmerized. A historical mystery about an affair between Victorian era poets, with academic detectives and plenty of romance both past and present is certainly something I would enjoy. As for the movie, I did not find either Gwyneth Paltrow or Aaron Eckhart particularly compelling, and their chemistry was definitely off. I was left curious about both of the characters they played, and hope that the details I want are in the book. In fact my strongest reaction (instead of the usual, “This book would make a great movie”) is “This movie is probably an excellent book!”

mr. motoFollowing up on my Peter Lorre interest, I watched Think Fast, Mr. Moto (Norman Foster-USA-1937), which is the first of 8 movies in which Lorre played a deceptively quiet and clever Japanese detective. I wouldn’t say I was blown away by it. While some of the action was good, the story was somewhat hard to follow and I didn’t care for Mr. Moto. Perhaps that was partially due to the inherent creepiness I find in Lorre, but I often have trouble believing in Hollywood’s Oriental characters who are played by decisively not Oriental actors. Lorre was Austrian! I’m not sure that I will be watching more in this series, although I still want to explore more of Lorre’s work.

Throw Down Your Heart (Sascha Paladino-USA-2008) is a documentary about banjo playing wizard Bela Fleck’s adventures in Africa. He wanted to bring the banjo back to the land it originated in, and find and record with musicians who still played the instruments that are the ancestors of the modern day banjo. He traveled to Gambia, Tanzania, Uganda, and Mali, meeting master musicians and singers in tiny native villages and in fancy hotel rooms and modern recording studios. What the movie ends up being is a fantastic jam session – the music is incredible, and the chance to see ancient instruments being played with such skill is amazing. I turned my speakers up, rocking my house with the incredible sound of a 9 foot marimba being played by seven people at a time, accompanied by Bela Fleck’s energetic attempt to improvise and keep up. The music ranged from traditional folk songs to songs composed by Bela Fleck on the spot. His skill was evident, but it was also fun to see him watching in awe as D’Gary riped apart a complex string of notes on the acoustic guitar, and Bassekou Kouyate made the ngoni sing. The give and take among musicians is so amazing! I highly recommend this documentary, simply for the listen. I’m definitely buying the soundtrack.

big nightBig Night (Campbell Scott, Stanley Tucci-USA-1996) is a great movie. It’s weird and quirky and kind of sad but at the same time so satisfying. Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci play brothers who have immigrated from Italy to open a restaurant in America. Primo (Shalhoub) is an extraordinary chef who isn’t willing to compromise his cooking to please the expectations of his infrequent customers, who are used to mediocre Italian food. Business isn’t so good for the brothers, and with the bank threatening to foreclose on their restaurant, Secondo (Tucci) makes a last ditch effort to save the restaurant and realize his dream of becoming a wealthy businessman like Pascal (Ian Holm), who owns the ridiculously successful restaurant across the street. Pascal (always plotting, but seemingly friendly) convinces Secondo that if the brothers host a big party, he will call up his big-time jazz playing friend and get him to come. The press will do wonders for the failing restaurant. Secondo has his hands full talking Primo into the scheme, keeping his two girlfriends from finding out about each other, and shopping for the Cadillac that represents the successful man he wants to be. Primo’s feast, when served, is the most astonishing meal the guests have ever eaten, but that surprise is only the first of many on the big night. Shalhoub is brilliant in this – shy but fiercely passionate. Tucci also delivers a fine performance, and the fantastic supporting cast (including Minnie Driver and Isabella Rossellini) only adds to the general greatness of the film. The script is really interesting – conversations flow with an odd naturalness, almost as though they were improvised but at the same time there is a studied feel to them. It’s slightly strange, but effective. I was reminded of the bizarre delivery of lines in The Spanish Prisoner, which incidentally stars Campbell Scott, who co-directed and played a small role in Big Night. Anyway, very enjoyable movie – one of my favorites of this year.


  1. I can second that Bela Fleck soundtrack! Fine stuff.

    • Definitely made me want to track down a couple of other Bela Fleck albums. I only have a “best of” I think.

      • How funny – not me! Other Bela Fleck albums are presumably filled with Bela Fleck playing the banjo. The great thing about this particular album is that it minimizes the banjo, replacing it with superb African musicians playing instruments related to the banjo but – here’s the key – not actually banjos.

        I’m not really what you would call a fan of the banjo.

  2. I had no idea the banjo originated in Africa! That Bela Fleck documentary sounds fantastic.

    I haven’t seen the Possession film but I cannot IMAGINE a Hollywood adaptation of that book that would retain even half the appeal. It’s such a textual story, including so many poems and letters and journal entries, which are all a huge part of its accomplishment, and none of that would really translate into film. Harumph. Although, I kind of thought the chemistry between Maud and Roland in the book was lacking as well, so maybe that part got accurately translated.

    • I was surprised and fascinated when I learned of the banjos origins. I kind of want to do a little more research into that.

      I got the feeling from re-reading your review of Possession that the movie didn’t do it justice at all! Interesting though that the chemistry thing might have been accurate. Dang, I wish I had time to read the book this month! I’m dying with curiosity now. 🙂

  3. Sarah, I think Aaron Eckhart’s chemistry is off with just about everybody. What a stiff! Enjoyed Big Night ages ago, want to see that banjo doc now, and highly recommend Peter Lorre in M and The Maltese Falcon if you’re craving more of the charismatic weirdo at his finest (I assume you’ve seen both of those, though).

    • Eh, Eckhart certainly is better at non-romantic stuff, but he’s not a favorite actor of mine by any means. I haven’t seen M, but after the slight disappointment of Mr. Moto I’m eager to watch it. I saw The Maltese Falcon a few years ago and have been meaning to watch it again, especially as I’ve been having a craving for something hard boiled. 🙂

  4. I am very interested in this banjo documentary. Concur on Eckharts chemistry and really would love to watch Big Night, sounds very appealing.

    • I’m so pleased that everyone is interested in the Bela Fleck doc – it really is good!

  5. I LOVED Big Night, even though Tony kept assuring me that everything would turn out ok in the end, and then that wasn’t really the case. But still it was wonderful and the food! Totally made me reconsider eating Italian food outside of my own kitchen! That tympano they made? I still dream of it!

    Oh, and Throw Down Your Heart was also fantastic too. I have a super weakness for the banjo so I was predisposed to like it anyway, but I thought it was great and the music really was fantastic.

    • Movies that make you want to leap through the screen and get in on the feasting are always so much fun to watch! Big Night reminded me that even though I grew up eating so called Italian food, my family stuck to fairly standard stuff. There’s a wealth of dishes that I’ve never had and need to – that tympano? Amazing. Need it in my life!

  6. Love Big Night, as you know. Check out Abigail Washburn. Female banjo player who is also fluent in Chinese and often sings in that language. I saw her play with Bela once and she was fantastic.

    • Oh wow, Washburn sounds like a really interesting musician. I’ll definitely look her up. Thanks for the tip!

  7. Love Big Night! As much as Eckhart’s time is always one beat off (when you can find a heartbeat at all). Tucci’s timing is impeccable. And the food! If you don’t want to cook or eat after watching that one, then you are half dead.

    Proud to say that I have watched Iron Man (and 2) and Star Trek as many times as you. Entertaining and then that bad boy thing again too. 🙂

    • Hehe, nice work Frances!

  8. “Big Night” is one of my favourites as well. And it stands up to re-watches too!

    • It’s definitely one I intend to revisit! 🙂

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