Hollywood’s annual feeding frenzy peaks with the Academy Awards broadcast this Sunday night, but the cinema season has already entered its post-Oscar doldrums, with not many appealing choices out there once you’ve seen all or most of the Oscar contenders. Having already reviewed the delightful Quartet when it appeared at the Woodstock Film Festival in the fall, I couldn’t find a single new movie to tempt me this past week. So it seems like a good time to compile a list of favorite films available on DVD or Netflix that will supply some relief from the cabin fever that tends to set in at this time of year. Herewith, in no particular order of preference, are my recommendations:
Enchanted April (1992), Mike Newell: I can’t think of a cheerier tonic for the winter blahs than this, my all-time-favorite chick flick, based on a 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim. It begins in London women’s club in a dreary, rainy March not long after the end of World War I, where two unhappily married middle-class women – fey, flaky housewife Lottie (Josie Lawrence) and dour, dutiful church lady Rose (Miranda Richardson) – both spot the same classified ad for a monthlong rental of a medieval villa on the northwest coast of Italy, surrounded by fabulous gardens. Lottie, gifted with precognition, impulsively tells Rose that they simply must rent the place together, and practical Rose decides that it’s time that she did something for herself for once in her life. Needing two more women to share the cost, they recruit stern, imperious old Mrs. Fisher (Joan Plowright), who lives entirely in the past, and rich, beautiful Lady Caroline, who just wants a break from dodging all her suitors.
Their differences of temperament spark conflicts among the four at first, but the extraordinary beauty of the villa quickly begins to work its transformative magic, and things get really complicated when the men in their lives start turning up. Lottie unaccountably misses her overbearing husband (Alfred Molina) and impulsively invites him to join them. Rose’s embarrassing husband (Jim Broadbent), who writes bodice-ripper romances for a living, drops in looking for Lady Caroline, who knows him only by his pen name, and is discomfited to discover his wife there. Then the castle’s handsome-but-half-blind owner shows up.
Hilarious chaos ensues, but the charms of the sun-kissed locale prevail in the end. The movie is shot at the actual site that the book’s author had in mind, and you’ll want to spend April there yourself once you’ve seen this movie – guaranteed.
Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August (1974), Lina Wertmüller: Here’s another film set on the gorgeous Italian seashore – Sardinia this time – but with a much darker theme, and definitely not for everybody. Based loosely on J. M. Barrie’s stage farce The Admirable Crichton, it’s a Marxist black comedy about class role reversal between a wealthy woman named Raffaella (Mariangela Melato) and a poor deckhand named Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini) who get shipwrecked together on a sailing vacation.
Despite its female director, some critics blasted Swept Away as misogynistic at the time of its release. The scenes where Gennarino smacks Raffaella around and contemplates raping her are hard to take, and those where she becomes more submissive as she realizes that she needs his help to survive even more so (think the ending of The Taming of the Shrew, but with an R rating). Yet the film’s wry anti-capitalist humor will stay with you, if your politics lean to the port side. There’s a great scene where Gennarino discovers a crucifix in an abandoned shack and mutters something scathing about Jesus being as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola. If that kind of irreverence floats your boat, you might find this flick highly diverting. At the very least, the scenery will transport you from your wintry surroundings to the sunny Mediterranean for a couple of hours.
A League of Their Own (1992), Penny Marshall: For many, the promise of spring means baseball season. Being the sort of sports curmudgeon who wouldn’t go to a ballpark without a book to read, I don’t have a lot of baseball movies under my belt. But I like this bittersweet flick for its solid grounding in the history of the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League: one of many fields of endeavor where women gained a foothold when workingmen were in short supply during World War II, only to lose it again when the troops came back home. Feminists are likely to feel a lot more comfortable with this popular flick than with the challenging Swept Away, for sure.
Geena Davis and Lori Petty are affecting as Dottie and Kit, the battling sisters recruited for the new women’s league. Tom Hanks gets some memorable lines and does a reasonably convincing attitude adjustment as Jimmy, the washed-out coach assigned to the team. Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell supply ample comic relief as the trash-talking Mae and Doris. And the film score features the only Madonna song that I really like: “This Used to Be My Playground.”
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), Peter Weir: Would you prefer a movie with a nearly-all-male cast? This one’s for you. In fact, this one’s for just about everybody – especially those who miss the epic-scale historical adventure films made by people like David Lean back in the ‘60s. Based on Patrick O’Brian’s popular series of novels about captain “Lucky Jack” Aubrey, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable, beautifully made drama of the Napoleonic Wars that proves that action on the high seas can be rendered without skeletal crews, silly set pieces and a lot of mugging by Johnny Depp. Oscar-winning cinematography and sound design deliver the requisite sweep and grandeur, and a strong cast and thoughtful script supply intriguing detail about maritime subculture and the teamwork required to run a sailing ship.
It’s a shame that this critically acclaimed movie didn’t ring up quite enough at the box office to warrant the making of a sequel, because Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany make the most charismatic pair of buddies onscreen since Newman and Redford. If Crowe’s wooden performance in Les Mis left a bad taste in your mouth, it’s time to see Master and Commander again to remind yourself how good he can be. He’s utterly convincing as Aubrey, a natural leader who really loves his craft, in both senses of the word. But Bettany is even better in the role of ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin, who in this story starts asking the right questions in the Galapagos four years before Darwin was even born. The alternating affection and tension between the two characters – the patriotic and decisive man of action and the insatiably curious scientist who thinks that living things are more important than catching the enemy ship – sometimes makes them seem like an old married couple, but they play off one another beautifully.