Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Testify!: The Notorious Bettie Page and Thank You For Smoking

The unexpected theme for this week's films is "congressional hearings". I say "unexpected" because I was figuring on getting into Inside Man last Thursday, but a slow bus and folks at the box office just yakking instead of BUYING TICKETS bumped me to the next show. Drat; I really feel like I missed out.

I'm trying to remember the last movie I saw with Congressional hearings where they were a good thing. In both of these films, it's about grandstanding and trying to impose one's morality on people, and even if you agree with that morality, it's still arrogance in action.

(yawns) Not really much to say about these. Bettie Page is good, making me really fond of its subject and giving me unexpected Sarah Paulson (I thought I was getting unexpected Enrico Colantoni too, but it wound up being Chris Bauer). Thank You is slicker, but ultimately pretty hollow. And it gives you Cameron Bright. I normally don't like saying I dislike child actors, because I have images in my head of them reading it and crying, but he's thirteen and has amassed a body of work that is not just truly unpleasant, but snobbish. I eagerly await his first projected emotion.

I doubt that either movie quite manages to drive home the point that it would like to. Bettie Page refused to become a symbol and Thank You For Smoking isn't cynical enough to be shocking in this day and age. Bettie, at least, is entertaining, which is the most important thing.

The Notorious Bettie Page

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 May 2006 at AMC Harvard Square #4 (First-run)

Up until a few years ago, I didn't realize Bettie Page was a real person. I'd seen Bettie Page comic books, action figures, and other assorted merchandise; even when I saw a photograph of her, I thought it was just some random model portraying the Bettie Page character. So this film about her is interesting to me, as it makes this brand name that has persisted for decades beyond her heyday far more human while still allowing the audience to assign what qualities to her that they see fit - much like they did during her career.

Bettie Page was a pin-up model in the 1950s. Born to a conservative Nashville family, she moved to New York City for a new start, got noticed by an amateur photographer on a local beach, and quickly made other contacts, eventually working primarily for Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer), whose movie stills business is something of a front for racier things. This eventually leads them be called before Congress as a purveyor of unwholesome material, raising the question of how this sweet southern girl can be a threat to the country's morality.

Read the rest at HBS.

Thank You for Smoking

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 May 2006 at AMC Fenway #1 (First-run)

Thank You for Smoking is just too glib for me to really enjoy. There's funny bits and occasionally energetic direction and performances, and they add up to a good movie, but the vital spark is missing. The creature that Jason Reitman has built from a good novel, an outstanding cast, and an abundance of style never leaps to life and moves about under its own power.

The plot, taken from Christopher Buckley's novel, follows Nick Naylor, Tobacco Industry Lobbyist (Aaron Eckhart), on his quest to keep cigarette legal and unregulated. He reports to BR (J.K. Simmons), the domineering head of the Institute for the Study of Tobacco, and "Captain" Doak Boykin (Robert Duvall), a courtly but steel-willed tobacco magnate. His nemesis is crusading Vermont senator Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy). In the meantime, he tries to be a good weekend dad to his son Joey (Cameron Bright), co-operate (and then some) with a pretty newspaper reporter (Katie Holmes), and hangs out with his fellow "Merchants of Death": Alcohol lobbyist Polly Bailey (Maria Bello) and gun-industry spokesman Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner). His world is turned upside down when he is kidnapped and plastered with a hugely excessive amount of nicotine patches: He survives, but is told that his next cigarette could kill him.

Read the rest at HBS.

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