Watching PBS' marvelous two-part documentary about Woody Allen earlier this week provided as much inspiration as hilarity. I'm still buzzing from this immersion into the life and work of the singular performer-writer-director who has made a career out of warding off cosmic depression by turning it into a series of gags.
After a five-decade career, the 75-year-old artist is hitting new creative heights. Ironically, he also seems to have also achieved two things that eluded him earlier in his brilliant career: commercial success, but, more importantly, personal happiness.
Like contemporaries Martin Scorsese, 69, and Clint Eastwood, 81, who both have great new films out in time for awards season, Woody refutes our cultural mythtakes about aging. Following your bliss can be good for your health. Of course, being an artistic genius helps.
Just seeing clips from his films -like Woody Allen's greatest hits Part 1 - was the intoxicating first gift of this holiday season. Watching him in action on movie sets, noting his unique way of dealing with actors, or being surprised by his candor, modesty and accessibility as an interview subject were all a great way to start this week of Thanksgiving.
But his work also set the bar awfully high for this week's new movies. Checking out three of them, I was reminded that movies have one of those on-again, off-again relationships with reality.
Some films aspire to show us what's true, even if that requires fudging the facts a bit. Actual life rarely, and only momentarily, achieves the elegant rhythm and balance of well-crafted screenwriting. Great movie lines don't come trippingly out of most of our mouths. Real life is messier. There's no script.
At the other end of reality spectrum are the tickets to pure escape. They hold a funhouse mirror up to life as we know it, operating on their own principles of biology, physics and truth.
"Margin Call" falls into the first category. It offers a primer in Wall Street's 2008 hemorrhage, taking place over less than 24 hours in an only slightly fictionalized Lehman Brothers. That's how long it takes top-floor management to learn that their multibillion-dollar investments are essentially worthless and how long it takes to sell them to other unwitting, but greedy, buyers.
J.C. Chandor makes an impressive writing and directoral debut sewing the seeds of outrage that have prompted the Occupy protests on Wall Street and elsewhere. But he also provides a cynical reminder of why things like moral outrage are just little bumps in the up-and-down road of capitalism.
"Margin Call's" achievement isn't making finance compelling - it's making it understandable. The film is a basic course in American greedom, which seems to operate on the principle that everyone has his or her price - it just gets higher as you move up the chain of command. But when Kevin Spacey is the guy in the cast with a conscience, it's clear how far we've traveled down that dangerous road.
Across the hall at the Kaahumanu 6, those tap-dancing penguins - and other eccentric critters you might encounter on Arctic glaciers - are at it again in "Happy Feet Two." Although animated and overflowing with warm, fuzzy, 3-D cuteness, this family-targeted whimsy has environmental concerns on its mind. It's like "An Inconvenient Truth" reimagined as an animated musical comedy. Or a kiddie show with a "Far Side" outlook on the circle of life.
It's directed by "Babe's" George Miller, and its vocal cast brings Elijah Wood and Robin Williams back from the first film, adding the unmistakable voices of folks like Hank Azaria, Pink and Sofia Vargara to the mix. But it's the teaming of Brad Pitt and Matt Damon voicing a pair of krill - Bill and Will -that supercharges the whimsy in the script. Damon's krill is the timid one; Pitt's is the one with the ambition to become a carnivore and work his way up the food chain.
Richocheting between brilliance and nonsense, the wiggy writing doesn't even bother trying to be understood by the kids, or some of the parents, in the audience. The funny faces, silly accents and Busby Berkeley dance moves on ice provide plenty of distraction. But those who listen to the dialogue will be rewarded in laugh-out-loud one-liners, puns and a giddy faith in creativity itself.
Maui Film Festival also gave us an early FirstLight look at Alexander Payne and George Clooney's expected Oscar contender, "The Descendants," which makes Hawaii a co-star in its compassionate bathos.
Locals may quibble with its details, but its way of bringing lots of aloha to mainstream Mainland audiences is one more thing to be thankful for on this special day.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com.