Thursday, December 22, 2022

She IS Family: "While You Were Sleeping" (1995)

While You Were Sleeping (1995) came out the weekend I turned fifteen. A couple of months later, I went to a sleepover hosted by a girl I was gradually becoming friends with. The next morning, the hosting mother took us to see this at the local second-run theater. It was the first movie I had seen in the theater since I was eight. I was enthralled by the experience. I can still remember exactly what that theater looked like: a tiny auditorium with only maybe a dozen rows of seats, covered in worn pseudo-velvet. My friend’s mom let us sit together wherever we chose, while she and her little son sat in the very back. He fell asleep clutching Skittles candies that dyed his hands all sorts of colors. 

To this day, nearly twenty years later, Skittles always make me think of this movie. Of a grainy filmstrip image interrupted now and then by hair and lint. Of sharing popcorn and giggles with three or four other teenage girls, two of whom are still my close friends. 

But, nostalgia is not the main reason why I love this movie. I love it because it gave me my first real taste of the idea of a “found family.” I grew up in a very close-knit family, and I’m very attached to the idea of having people who love and accept you; people you belong to and who belong to you; people to be with in troubles, celebrations, and everyday life. So as the movie began, my heart ached for Lucy (Sandra Bullock) as she struggled to celebrate Christmas alone, with no family at all to share her joy, no one she belonged to. With both her parents dead, no siblings, and really no friends, she embodied a loneliness so potent it felt contagious. 

And then the Callaghan family embraced her, literally, giving her a giant group hug when they learned she was their comatose son’s fiancée. Which she wasn’t, but they believed she was, and before Lucy could gather the courage to explain the truth, they made her part of their family. They gave her the love, acceptance, and belonging she’d been missing. (She then fell in love with their other son, Jack [Bill Pullman], but I’m not going to go into the whole plot because you’ve probably seen this movie a million times, too. And if you haven’t, go rent it, stream it, borrow it, or buy it.) 

I was fascinated by this idea of finding a family if you didn’t have one, of joining other people and forging the bonds that are so dear to me. I’ve been drawn to stories about “found families” ever since: Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, the X-Men movies, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, The Avengers, and Lost. One of my favorite television shows from childhood, Five Mile Creek, also dealt with this theme, though it took me years to realize that. 

While You Were Sleeping first brought the idea to my attention, and made me wonder, “What if I didn’t have a family?” I’ve often imagined myself ending up like Lucy: alone with a cat and plenty of acquaintances, but no one I belonged to. What would I do? Would I go find or create a family for myself? How does one even go about that? 

I make friends fairly easily. If you like books or movies, I’m happy to hang out with you and discuss them. We can totally be friends. But close friends, friends that feel like they belong to you—I make those very slowly. It can take me years to get to the point where I’ll feel that bond of kinship, not just friendship. It does happen eventually, if I let it. I’d like to think that, had I never met my husband, never gotten married, and for some reason not lived anywhere near my parents or brother, I would have formed a family of sorts around myself. Not quite the way Lucy does, of course—I’m pretty sure I would never have the opportunity to rescue a man from an oncoming train and then pretend to be his fiancée. But somehow, I would find people to be my family. 

Toward the end of While You Were Sleeping, Lucy’s boss tells her, “You are born into a family. You don’t join it like the Marines.” I like to believe he’s wrong, that if you need a family, you can find one… or one will find you.

(This post originally appeared in the November/December 2014 issue of Femnista magazine.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Movie Music: Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" (1954)

For nearly seventy years, the actual motion picture soundtrack for the wonderful Christmas movie White Christmas (1954 -- my review here) was unavailable.  They never released it when the movie was made because Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney sang for competing recording companies and were contractually forbidden from singing together on an album.  They could sing together in a film, but not on a recorded album.  Because contracts are fun like that.  So, when the studio did release an album of music from the film, they had Peggy Lee sing all of Rosemary Clooney's songs instead.


Just this year, the real movie score was FINALLY released on CD!!!

I bought my copy from Amazon, but it is probably available from other sellers too.  I have listened to my copy over and over... though I haven't managed to listen to the second CD yet, which has the soundtrack for Holiday Inn (1942).

Today, I'm going to share my favorite songs from this movie.  The best versions I could find on YouTube are actually clips from the film, so that's what I'm sharing here.

"Sisters" is super fun to sing.  I don't have any actual sisters, just one brother, but I have four sisters-in-law who are all very dear to me, and so I sing this in their honor sometimes.  I do have two daughters, though, and they find this song super fun.  From observing them, I've come to understand this song even better -- how you can love and be protective of a sister, but also compete with her.

Cowboy likes to sing "Snow" to me whenever I get super excited because it is snowing, it's going to snow, or there's even the slightest chance that we might get snow.  And I'm completely fine with that, because I absolutely love snow!  The harmonizing in this song is spectacular.  Wow, such perfect blending.

My mom used to sing "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep" once in a while, and I always think of her when I hear this song.  It's so tender and sweet and full of the appreciation of ordinary life.  I've sung it as a lullaby to my kids once in a while.

Obviously, the big star of the show is the song "White Christmas."  The ending of the film is such a beautiful, spectacular, heart-warming celebration of Christmas and dreams coming true.  I adore it.

Merry Christmas to all!  Happy listening :-)

Sunday, December 11, 2022

"Hamlet at Elsinore" (1964) -- Initial Thoughts

Although many, many productions of Hamlet had been filmed before this 1964 version, this is only the second one to have been recorded in the Kronborg Castle at Elsinore (Helsingør, in Danish), where the play takes place.  The first was a silent film, and no one has done another since, which is kind of weird because they do a live production of Hamlet there every summer, and it's a really big deal.  They get big-name actors, and I'm surprised they don't record the performances more often.

Anyway, this particular production was done by the BBC in 1964, and it was recorded on videotape, not film, which I suspected when I was watching it.  Early videotape has a very distinctive look; once you've seen it, you won't have a hard time recognizing it.  Christopher Plummer received an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Prince Hamlet, as this was telecast in Great Britain and the US.  Oddly, considering the fabulous cast, it was not made available on home video or DVD until 2011.  I'm so glad it wasn't lost, and that we can watch it now, because it is overall so good.  The print gets a little grimy here and there, though, but it's never unwatchable.

It kind of boggles my mind that this was made only one year before The Sound of Music (1965).  Christopher Plummer's Captain von Trapp always strikes me as quite a middle-aged chap in that, but he exudes youth and promise in this.  I would have thought this was about ten years earlier, not one, and the fact that Plummer can convince me he's so young here really adds to my admiration of his performance.

Over all, Plummer is a sympathetic Hamlet.  He is generally gentle and even playful, which I found very pleasing.  But sometimes he ran around and shouted and waved his arms a lot, and that was jarring.  I think he was playing Hamlet as actually going somewhat mad, so I guess all the shouting and arm-waving was supposed to show that?  It was usually super abrupt and unexpected, though, and sometimes pulled me out of the story, which I did not appreciate.

But I really loved a lot of his readings of lines that are often just considered throw-aways or ignored totally.  He clearly put a LOT of thought into his portrayal.  I know that Plummer was a stage actor before he got into movies, and you can see he's very comfortable with this style of storytelling.  I suppose all the shouting and gesticulating might be a carryover from his stage acting, actually, as that's such a different style from film.

Michael Caine was an absolute stand-out as Horatio.  Solid, dependable, loyal, brave, even wise -- everything a Horatio ought to be.  I can't believe Caine has never done any more Shakespeare.  He absolutely sold me here.  At the very end, his exchange with Fortinbras was particularly moving.  I would rather have liked to see how he would play Hamlet himself. 

The other stand-out in this production was Robert Shaw as Claudius.  Oh my goodness!  He was fantastic!  When I looked at the casting for this and saw him here, I was kind of dubious because I mostly think of him as the bad guy in The Sting (1973), and that's kind of a blustery sort of role, more blunt cudgel than sharp knife.  

But oh my, he was so good as Claudius.  Crafty, cunning, and quite sexy.  Wandering about in a dressing gown with no shirt underneath, and canoodling in bed with Gertrude, and then there's this whole thing with him being half-drunk at the play-within-a-play that was super interesting.  I think he's going to edge his way onto my Top 5 Claudiuses list with another viewing or two.

I'm afraid that Polonius (Alec Clunes), Ophelia (Jo Maxwell Muller), and Laertes (Dyson Lovell) were not particularly noteworthy.  Lovell and Muller started out pretty well as an affectionate pair of siblings, but their first scene was their best, and they both bored me later on, until Ophelia's mad scenes.  Muller shone there, I thought.  But Lovell never got interesting again, alas.  And Clunes as Polonius grated on me, though I think that was probably intentional, as this Polonius is not sympathetic at all.

June Tobin was okay as Gertrude.  She pretty clearly didn't believe Hamlet at all in the closet scene, and really preferred to think he was actually mad, as evidenced by the aforementioned satisfied canoodling later on.  No avoiding sharing her bed with Claudius for this Gertrude, which was interesting just because it's so different from a lot of portrayals.

The one rather odd bit of casting was Donald Sutherland as Fortinbras.  Maybe it's just because I've seen him in quite a few other things, but he just felt weirdly modern in the role, while all the others felt suitably... well, Elizabethan, if not actually ancient Danish.  That may just be a personal quibble, though.

The only thing I didn't like much at all was the way the person voicing the Ghost just ranted and shouted and roared and yowled.  If you can chew the scenery with just your voice, that actor did it.  Also, they did a lot of extreme close-ups that were supposed to be really cool or whatever, this being the sixties, but they seem very dated now.

Having the whole thing actually filmed in the real Kronborg Castle was really cool, though the acting was so good that I rarely pulled out of the story enough to think, "Oh, so that's what the actual courtyard looks like!" and so on.

Overall, it's a solidly enjoyable production, and I look forward to watching it again.  For the purpose of my Hamlet Comparisons, here's how I rate the various portrayals:

Hamlet: A
Horatio: A+
Laertes: C 
Ophelia: B 
Claudius: A
Gertrude: C
Polonius: C 
Overall Production: A-

Random note, but wow, 1964 was an amazing year for Hamlet fans.  Not only did this get filmed and telecast, but that's when Richard Burton was playing Hamlet on Broadway, and his version was filmed and released to theaters!  Wow.

Is this version of Hamlet family friendly?  Well, mostly.  But you do have Claudius and Gertrude kissing in bed, him shirtless and her in a sort of corset thing, but it goes no farther than kissing.  But there are a whole lot of paintings all around the castle featuring a lot of naked people, and some families might not be comfortable with that.  

This is my contribution to the Charismatic Christopher Plummer Blogathon hosted by RealWeegieMidget Reviews and Pale Writer this weekend.

Sunday, December 04, 2022

Movie Music: Newman, Ahrens, and Flaherty's "Anastasia" (1997)

I have owned this soundtrack since I was in college. I first saw Anastasia (1997) on Thanksgiving break during my freshman year of college, and I loved it so much, I bought the soundtrack when I was home for Christmas. Anastasia is hardly the stuff historical documentaries are made of, but if you're like me and don't expect your animated movies to be exactly factual, then you can enjoy it for the history-inspired fable it clearly is. The music by David Newman, Lynn Ahrens, and Stephen Flaherty, was nominated for two Academy Awards, though it didn't win either of them. 

The first song in both the movie and the soundtrack is "A Rumor in St. Petersburg," and it's so much fun -- it reminds me of the song "The Rumor" from Fiddler on the Roof, as I'm sure it's meant to. After all, both movies are set in Russia in the early part of the 1900s. The song works splendidly to communicate not just the setting, but also tell us the basic plot: two con artists (voiced by John Cusack and Kelsey Grammer) are searching for a girl to impersonate the missing Princess Anastasia to get them a big reward from her grandmother. 

Meanwhile, an orphan named Anya (Meg Ryan) with no memory of her past sets off to figure out who she used to be, as the song "Journey to the Past" explores. The music helps us feel the mixture of determination and hesitancy she feels about trying to find out her history. The music swells as her questions give way to optimistic ideas of what she might find on this journey. This was nominated for the Oscar for Best Song, but of course it lost out to a little tune called "My Heart Will Go On." Sigh. 

My third selection to share today is "Once Upon a December." I think this is the most beautiful song in the whole score, and the one that best captures the mystery and yearning that run through this film. In it, Anastasia regains a memory of dancing with her father in the palace as a child. It's haunting, isn't it? 

Usually I limit myself to three tracks for these reviews, but today I'm sharing one more song. "At the Beginning" plays during the end credits, sung by Donna Lewis and Richard Marx.  It's my favorite song on the whole album. This song gives me a happy energy high, and I could listen to it over and over. In fact, I often have :-) My favorite part is at 2:25. My college roommates and I used to belt this song together -- we were all singers, and although we had wildly different musical tastes, we all loved this soundtrack and this song.  Ahh, such good memories <3

Dasvidaniya!  (Which doesn't mean "farewell" the way Rasputin claims in one of his songs, but is more like "until we meet again," just fyi...)

(This review originally appeared here at J and J Productions on November 18, 2015.)