Feelgood flicks for the housebound

With going to cinemas starting to sound like a dangerous idea, Plan A for this week’s film review was to substitute a listicle of movies about plagues. It would’ve kicked off with Contagion (2011, Stephen Soderbergh), a well-made thriller that is proving remarkably prescient about many aspects of the current COVID-19 emergency, including the dangerous role played by anti-science social media pundits. But such lists are easy to come by elsewhere, and we got to thinking that our readers probably didn’t need something else to bum them out, while they’re hunkering down and wondering whether or not they’ll still have a job two months from now.

On to Plan B: some suggestions of feelgood movies to search out on the various cable channels and streaming services that are likely to become our cherished companions over the weeks to come. Rather than cite classics that I turn to again and again, I’m going to browse through my nine years of Almanac Weekly reviews and offer digested-down descriptions of some movies that lifted my spirits. Maybe they’ll perk you up as well.

1: Hugo (Martin Scorsese), 2011

Based on Brian Selznick’s gorgeous graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Hugo is proof of how immensely creative a filmmaker Martin Scorsese can be when he isn’t wallowing in his obsession with mobsters. James Cameron, who almost-singlehandedly reinvented the 3-D movie with Avatar, praised Hugo as “the best 3-D cinematography I’ve ever seen.”

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It’s a love letter to the silent films of the late 19th/early 20th centuries, and an attempt to revive appreciation of one of its pioneers whose work was very nearly lost to history. The story follows an orphaned 12-year-old boy (Asa Butterfield) who lives in a train station in 1930s Paris, winding the clocks daily while he pilfers clockwork parts to repair a wonderful brass automaton that his late father (Jude Law) left him. The steampunk aesthetic is reinforced via long, deep tracking shots along ornate corridors and wrought-iron staircases as vertiginous as any in an Escher engraving. The public spaces of the station are the realm where Hugo is always in danger, dodging the gimpy-but-determined Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen).

The plot thickens when the isolated, secretive young protagonist gets caught shoplifting by a toyshop owner with a cryptic past (Ben Kingsley). Hugo meets his match in the toy-seller’s goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), who desperately wants adventure and becomes his partner in crime, trying to solve the mystery of the broken automaton (not to mention several broken people). The supporting cast includes Helen McCrory, Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour and Christopher Lee.

2: The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard/Joss Whedon), 2012

The slasher movie to end all slasher movies, The Cabin in the Woods is tremendous fun even if you think that you don’t like this sort of thing at all. “Five youths go to spend a weekend at a remote, spooky house and then all Hell breaks loose” is a misleading synopsis that could apply to any one of hundreds of lame adolescent torture-porn flicks of the past several decades. But Cabin is actually high-concept meta-horror, out to turn every crazed-killer cliché in the book on its head. The very triteness of the basic concept is the launch point for an exhilarating cinematic ride that piles trope upon trope of the genre, twists them every which way and then detonates the whole shebang with a colossal dose of ironic black humor.

Before we even meet the five doomed kids – sensible good girl (Kristen Connolly), alpha-male jock (Chris Hemsworth), dumb slutty girl (Anna Hutchison), philosophical stoner (Fran Kranz) and quiet intellectual (Jesse Williams) – the movie introduces Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as a couple of suits exchanging small talk in a mysterious high-tech facility with lots of screens and consoles. As the vacationers head off in their Winnebago, their departure is reported to headquarters by a spy crouching on their roof. Clearly, there is more than a random reason why these youths are about to have a very unpleasant weekend in the country indeed.

The tale really gets into high gear when the victims start finding concrete evidence that everything going on in the cabin and its environs is under surveillance. But puppets are sometimes known to turn against their masters. The grand finale of The Cabin in the Woods unleashes a Destroy-All-Monsters sequence of goofily gory bedlam so long, loony and over-the-top that I was winded from laughing by the time it finally subsided. The Apocalypse has never been this much fun.

3: In a World… (Lake Bell), 2013

For many, the best escape from reality is a rom/com. Perhaps the freshest, most original entry in that genre to come down the pike in the last decade was In a World…, a send-up of the pretensions of the big fish in the little pond of voiceover acting that’s currently in rotation on the HBO roster. The title evokes the late real-life voiceover actor Don LaFontaine, introducing some bombastic cinema epic with the words “In a world where only…” This movie opens with the Hollywood sharks circling to take over LaFontaine’s role as king of the voiceovers; next in line in this nearly exclusively male field is Sam (Fred Melamed), who’s about to pass the torch to a younger competitor, Gustav (Ken Marino). Brimming with classic movie-mogul narcissism and machismo, Sam cavalierly dismisses the ambitions of his gifted 30ish daughter Carol (Bell) to break into voiceover work.

A sought-after vocal coach, Carol is a late bloomer who still lives in her dad’s house – until he kicks her out to make room for a young trophy girlfriend (Alexandra Holden). Transplanted to her sister Dani’s (Michaela Watkins) living room, Carol wanders the streets of LA surreptitiously collecting accents on her voice recorder for future study – a habit that will later trigger a rift in Dani’s marriage. And she haunts a recording studio where her sweet-but-nerdy friend Louis (Demetri Martin) operates the soundboard while secretly pining for Carol.

There, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity opens up when a producer (Geena Davis) puts out a call for voiceover actors to revive LaFontaine’s trademark trailer intro. Gustav, afflicted with laryngitis, bails out of his audition and Carol steps into the breach. When word gets out that an unspecified woman has the inside track for the coveted gig, Gustav goes for the jugular, and even Sam is suddenly motivated to get back into the game. Complications abound, and meanwhile, a charmingly awkward courtship blossoms between Louis and Carol.

In a World… is winsome, but with some sharp edges, and clearly reflects a contemporary female auteur’s sensibility, wielding its feminist politics with a light, ironic hand. The complex narrative moves along smartly and coherently; the dialogue is snappy but feels real. Bell endows every secondary character with some annoying traits, saving graces, at least one Achilles’ heel and a generous supply of funny lines.

4: The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson), 2014

One must always start with the disclaimer that Wes Anderson movies aren’t for everybody. Some find them twee or artificial. For my money, the guy is a demented genius, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is my favorite. I liked Birdman well enough, but why this exquisitely crafted artwork didn’t win the 2014 Best Picture Oscar is beyond me.

Though The Grand Budapest Hotel looked fabulous on the big screen, it’s also the perfect movie to acquire on DVD, so you can look at it frame-by-frame in total awe. The meticulously symmetrical “diorama” aesthetic that is Anderson’s trademark finds the perfect setting in this skewed facsimile of Eastern Europe on the cusp of World War II, where a few obsessive visionaries still fight to hold onto the grandeur and grace of gentler times. One of those is Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), dedicated concierge of a pink Baroque/Rococo pile situated in a mythical mountainous country soon to be invaded by a grim foreign force closely resembling Nazis.

A true believer in the ideal of providing optimal customer service, Gustave runs a tight ship, endlessly correcting his deeply loyal underlings as he strides about the hotel’s immense lobby and sprawling halls. Shifting from supercilious politeness to swearing like a sailor without missing a beat, he’s the kind of character who will stand on the edge of ruin and get caught up in a heated argument on the finer points of etiquette. It’s a mad turn that Fiennes sustains at high intensity for the entire movie and makes us believe in it, even though there’s nothing the slightest bit naturalistic about the performance.

Among the services that Gustave considers it his duty to provide to guests is amorous attention for rich elderly women. One of those, a nervous countess (Tilda Swinton), drops dead shortly after returning to her mansion following a romantic sojourn at the hotel. Gustave and his protégé Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori/F. Murray Abraham) hurry off to Madame D’s funeral to discover that the deceased has bequeathed the most valuable painting in her art collection to her concierge lover. Her despicable kinfolk do not take the news well. Accused of poisoning Madame D, Gustave is thrown into prison. Arguably the most preposterous jailbreak sequence in cinematic history leads to further escapades involving elaborate confections baked by Zero’s fiancée Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), some mysterious monks and a secret globe-spanning brotherhood of hotel concierges. Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe play the primary villains.

On one level, this is a caper comedy, but it also has a lot of darkness around the edges, as fascism closes in on this Alpine land of opulent dwellings, fancy pastries and good manners. But I defy you to walk away from the somewhat downbeat ending without a big grin on your face.

5: Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad), 2015

“Crazy” people used to be stock characters in comedy, and I will never stop cherishing such performances as Peter O’Toole’s mad Earl of Gurney in The Ruling Class or Ruth Gordon’s exasperatingly senile mother in Where’s Poppa? But I am resigned to the fact that such movies couldn’t be made anymore, because they stigmatize people with mental illnesses. So how does a biopic about a man with schizoaffective disorder, complicated by auditory hallucinations, make it onto a list of feelgood movies? For one, the story of Brian Wilson is uplifting, and for another, Love & Mercy is propelled by the joyous music of Wilson and the Beach Boys.

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The sound that band achieved was a phenomenon that bordered on the miraculous – not merely because these DNA-sharing young men’s voices blended so beautifully, but because Brian Wilson has a rare and particular sort of genius. He doesn’t hear the world the way most of the rest of us do; he hears infinitely more, and it transports and sometimes overwhelms him. This decades-spanning cinematic rendering of Wilson’s struggle with his inner demons manages to evade the pitfall tropes of most stories about sensitive artists trying to keep their balance on the fine line between genius and madness. For that, credit tight writing and direction, terrific cinematography, splendid acting by all the principals and above all, an extraordinary soundtrack. Atticus Ross’ score blends actual Beach Boys and Wrecking Crew studio takes, newly recorded music, dialogue and ambient sounds with the voices in Brian’s head so seamlessy and persuasively that we feel that we’re getting a real hint of what it must be like to live inside a mind that raw, creative and tormented.

Love & Mercy casts Paul Dano as the young, ’60s-era Wilson at the height of his career success and John Cusack as the broken, terrified middle-aged man in the 1980s who can barely drag himself out of bed, let alone create music. Bill Camp plays the Wilson brothers’ abusive father; Paul Giamatti portrays Eugene Landy, an unscrupulous psychotherapist who controlled Brian’s movements as oppressively as if he had joined some crackpot religious cult. Playing the rescuing angel to Landy’s overmedicating devil is Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who eventually became Brian Wilson’s second wife.

It’s in the later-in-life segments starring Cusack that Love & Mercy hooks us by the heartstrings; but the studio segments in which the younger Brian conjures Pet Sounds and Smile out of seeming thin air – and wins the awestruck admiration of Hollywood’s best studio musicians in the process – are what make us want to stand up and cheer. It’s like Wilson’s brain is on fire, making synaptic connections that mere mortals cannot follow. Dano winningly conveys this musical prodigy as a hyperperceptive, tender, openhearted fellow with fundamentally low self-esteem who just wants to share what he hears inside with the rest of the world. Fortunately, the real Brian Wilson survived his ordeals and went on to make more music. Love & Mercy is a beautifully rendered reminder of how lucky we are to have his work. 

6: Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight), 2016

No list of feelgood movies can fail to include some animation, and this critic’s favorite animated film of the past decade – even after the visual pizazz of 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse – is a Laika Studios product, Kubo and the Two Strings. Blending stop-motion characters with CGI backgrounds of extraordinary detail and ethereal beauty, Kubo is replete with magical moments. The film’s visual aesthetic and its sometimes stately, sometimes sprightly sense of movement derive from origami and Noh theater, the traditional Japanese arts of paper-folding and ritual drama. Story, acting and music aside, it’s such a stunner to the eye that you’ll be wanting your own copy just to gape at it frame-by-frame for the art.

A coming-of-age quest that is dark and challenging, full of sorrow and loss, leavened by flashes of cheeky humor, Kubo’s core message has a decidedly Buddhist feel: The uplift of the ending comes from the power of forgiveness, not the satisfaction of revenge. It is through our ability to tell stories – to reframe our beliefs and perceptions through words – that we humans are able to forgive both ourselves and those who have done us harm. Thus do we break out of the violent cycles of history and evolve spiritually as a species. It’s an extraordinary meta-message that celebrates narrative art in all its forms, from village storytellers to modern wizards of electronic media.

Kubo follows the adventures of a plucky young boy who can make origami paper take living form by playing his enchanted shamisen, and who tries valiantly to communicate with a mother irrevocably traumatized by the death of her warrior husband. Kubo, whose left eye was stolen in his infancy by his grandfather, the Moon King, in an effort to blind him to a human capacity for compassion, must confront supernatural foes of terrifying power who are his own kin. Love and loyalty, courage and sacrifice are found in unexpected places in his world, when the resources on which people usually depend prove illusory.

The film is populated with engaging characters, brought to vivid, heartfelt life by an amazing cast of voice actors, including Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey and Rooney Mara. Dario Marianelli’s lovely score also deserves a mention, adding layers of enchantment to the awe-inspiring visual imagery, such as a scene in which Kubo uses his shamisen to conjure a seaworthy galleon out of swirling autumn leaves.

7: Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley), 2018

Shockingly passed over during awards season, Sorry to Bother You is not for the pearl-clutching faint of heart, but a real find for anyone who loves movies, sociopolitical satire, dystopian science fiction and transgressive humor. It marks the invigorating directorial debut of Boots Riley, an Oakland area singer/rapper who was born into a family of Chicago labor organizers. His deep grounding in community activism informs Sorry to Bother You’s narrative in ways rarely seen in feature films these days.

A fantasia on the theme of the unintended consequences of a black man accidentally attaining power in a white corporate power structure, Sorry to Bother You is set in an alternative present day in which many of the poor are turning to a company called WorryFree that promises perpetual employment in the form of indentured servitude. Cash (Lakeith Stanfield), the protagonist, is in arrears on his rent to his uncle (Terry Crews), who is in danger of losing his home to his mortgage lender. Eager to help out his family, impress his artist/activist girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) and generally improve his socioeconomic status, Cash takes a commission-only job in a telemarketing firm. He flounders at first, but after being advised by a more seasoned black co-worker (Danny Glover) to cultivate his “white voice” for more effective cold calling, Cash learns to his astonishment that he has found something he’s really good at.

Elements of magical realism begin to creep into the story at this point, only to escalate more and more bizarrely as it unspools. Cash’s talents attract the attention of his supervisors, who dangle the carrot of promotion to the coveted status of highly remunerated “power caller” even as his co-workers begin demanding better pay. Torn between loyalty and ambition, Cash crosses the picket line and soon discovers that the power callers are hawking armaments, and the services of those virtual slaves who have sold their futures to WorryFree. Armie Hammer plays the villain, billionaire CEO Steve Lift, whose indulgent lifestyle lures our feckless hero ever more deeply into a web of horrors.

Sorry to Bother You’s screenplay is witty and smart, full of layered humor, the characters vivid and engagingly portrayed, their moral quandaries classic and yet exquisitely attuned to the politics of the moment. Boots Riley has important things to say, and the storytelling chops to say them entertainingly.

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