January 07, 2004

Calendar Girls

Broccoli in Antiquity

Calendar Girls: Helen Mirren as Chris Calendar Girls
with: Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, John Alderton, Linda Bassett, Annette Crosbie, Celia Imrie who is formidable in anything, Geraldine James, Penelope Wilton, Georgie Glen, Angela Curran, et. al.
running time: 108 minutes
PG-13
(Based on a true story, mind you.)

Eleven women in their forties and fifties and perhaps sixties, members of the equivalent of a women's auxiliary group, are roused by one of their number to do something special with the annual Knapely Women's Institute Calendar. Chris (Helen Mirren), the sort of woman who barely fits into her life, full of ideas and plans and iconoclastic diversions, suggests the calendar be a special fundraiser in honour of John, the husband of one of their number (Annie, Julie Waters), struck down by a terminal illness. A keen observer of men's obsession with breasts (well, how observant do women have to be when the obsession is so obvious?), Chris decides to give them a different idea of what breasts are all about and who is behind the things. Eleven women will pose for the calendar, in the altogether. December will be them, all together.

John is seen early in the movie working in his garden, and Chris helps her own husband manage his flower business, so John's sentiments ring particularly clear for her: that women are like flowers, the last stage the most glorious. Then, John jokes, they all go to seed, and that humour also rings true with the women of the WI when Chris reads his words to them. Now, she just has to convince enough of them to disrobe. And convince them to let her print the calendar at all. And manage to keep a balance between her ideas and schemes and her homelife. This is not a movie that struggles with some sort of dichotomy, dithering over how hard it is for women to "have it all." This is a movie that reminds us to appreciate it all.

The main characters are sweet, sexy, beautiful, and familiar. The fact that so many of the actresses will be familiar to viewers of British films and sitcoms lends to the verisimilitude rather than distracts. These are the women who could be in your own hometown, women you might see every day in church or down the shops or at the weekend block party. Granted, of course, your hometown would have to be the breathtakingly gorgeous (though perpetually damp) Yorkshire countryside. The camera loves the old farmhouses and perambulating stone walls and nested streets. The town of Knapely is cosy and small, confining but never claustrophobic. It is their home, and they want to grow within it, not beyond it.

The male characters play a good supporting melody, but even the hapless photographer hired to work with the formidable women—some of whom would never have seen themselves in that light until he stumbles in their presence—is only backdrop, like a girlie calendar on a mechanic-shop wall. Men are not marginalised or ignored, though; in fact, they comprise a variety of individuals from the bitter to the angry to the kind to the calmly blasé ("Your photo is in the [newspaper], dear. Please pass the bacon."). They are secondary to most of the story, but they are an important part of the women's lives. Admittedly, none comes across as clearly as John, the terminally ill husband who inspires the calendar (and to whom—the real-life John Baker—the film is dedicated).

The women are a mixed bag, just faces until we begin to see pieces of how unique each one is and how distinct each one's life is. The frumpy cafe owner has hidden patches of excitement in her past. The details she may keep hidden from her friends, but her exuberance is always twinkling under the surface, even as she stolidly plays the piano for the same anthem the women's group sings every week before a lecture on rugs or vegetables in ancient times.

Oh, Chris has a troubled son. Just being a teenage boy with an outspoken mother is trouble enough; don't expect primetime-drama crises. It is not a strong subplot, and it remains a bit superficial, but there are a lot of characters for the film to handle and the movie does reasonably well with this one. One can't help but think that, had this been made in "Hollywood," the son would have been portrayed by the latest flavour of teenage hunk, and the daughter of the cafe owner would be portrayed by a skinny buxom young actress, and they would have had a romance, just for the opportunity to show a gravity-defying young thing strip her shirt off too.

Calendar Girls, airbrushed Hollywood (yes, they do get there) is shown as sleek and so soulless that one soundstage the women walk into is so blankly white not even floor can be discerned from ceiling from walls. They drift in space, unanchored, in their dramatic black dresses and bright yellow sunflower buttonieres, then are made to wear white robes and become barely visible at all. It is a rather obvious image, and the only part of the film that feels so contrived and heavy-handedly symbolic, I wondered if it might be a dream sequence and kept waiting for someone to wake up. The sense of hackneyed imagery continues into a subsequent scene of two characters conversing on a backlot city street. Though the emotions are so taut the characters never lose their own reality ("Stop being prideful and forget reserve and just go to her and pat her arm!" I wanted to shout to Chris, feeling it more deeply than some "Just kiss her" moment in a typical flick), the scene floated somewhere between the "reality" within the borders of the movie screen, and the artifice of the easy metaphor. For all I know, though, that is exactly how the incident occurred.

Don't go to see this for heart-pounding surprises and action, or for non-stop guffaws. See it to become part of real lives, and for a reminder that, even if we do all go to seed, each stage is more glorious than the last.

Outside Food: Cadbury's Fruit and Nut bar seemed appropriate here. And a non-Pepsi-product cola, as I've been very sleepy lately. I discovered at the end of the movie that I had a patch of melted chocolate on my sweater. I had to fight the urge to just take the sweater off.

Seen at: National Amusements City Center 15: Cinema de Lux, 237 Martine Avenue, White Plains NY 10601. High praise.

This time, we went north to White Plains (New York) to try the cinema at the new City Center. Yummy. It was posh (in a "still in a mall" way), clean, with an incredibly friendly staff who seemed thrilled to be working together. There was the usual assortment of overpriced food plus an assortment of sandwiches and pizza (overpriced), plus a bar & grill (!) which really wasn't overpriced at all and smelled tantalisingly tasty. The individual screen's theatre had ample handicapped seating—I counted eight seats with room for chairs.

All this with ticket prices that manage to stay under $10, current and recent movie trailers showing on multiple screens in a lobby with cafe seating as well as couches and a magazine-reading nook with actual trendy magazines. And did I mention the grand piano in the lobby? That you can sit at and play while waiting for your show? Now, that's just odd. I love it.

As the name of the theatre says, it has fifteen screens. The theatres are modest but not tiny, the seats high-backed, plush, and comfy. It was reported to me that the bathrooms were "elegant," but I forgot to have a look myself. Of course, the place still smells of new carpeting. Enjoy it while it's squeaky-new.

Unfortunately, the print was scarred from beginning to end, enough so that the constant green scratches never sank beneath the conscious level, although the movie was strong enough to handle the distraction.

Previews:

The Ladykillers: Let's see here... slick white guy with a Colonel Sanders look, heavyset sassy old black lady, in some southern locale. Plans to rob a riverboat with a hip-hop kinda gangsta guy who probably has a heart of gold. Gospel music. Tom Hanks, looking not at all like himself. Remake of a 1955 film set in London with Alec Guinness (you know: old Obi-Wan), Peter Sellers, and Herbert Lom; now from producers Joel and Ethan Coen. Out in the spring. I will be elsewhere.

Laws of Attraction: Pierce Brosnan and, is that Laura Linney? No, I'm just having flashbacks to the wretched Mystic River (brrr). It's Julianne Moore. Lawyers in love. Attractive couple wakes after a wild night, married. They squabble, but you know they really have it bad for each other. Who cares?

The Big Bounce: A PG-13 preview, because... because... I suppose because people slink suggestively. From, we are pointedly told, the author of Get Shorty and Out of Sight, as if no one ever has a bad writing day. Owen Wilson and Morgan Freeman and Charlie Sheen and a bunch of lesser lights oggle a blonde woman on the beach. She is so skinny you can see the ridges of her every rib when she slinks around in her revealing halter-dress, like a denuded bird carcass ready for the stock pot. It is an alarming sight to see right before a movie like Calendar Girls. Cons and schemes and doublecrosses and emaciated romance follow. The trailer tries hard to look clever and quirky but comes across as just another thin movie. Its ribs are showing.

Miracle: Walt Disney Pictures brings us this heartwarming and moving drama about dreams and hockey and coaches and wanting a second chance and giving up your dream of Olympic glory until twenty ordinary kids make the greatest moment in sports history and that's all you really need or want to hear but the preview goes on and on, as people weighed down by bad late-twentieth-century haircuts show they Have Heart. The film does seem to get some balletic scenes out of the hockey practices, but appears to be a lot of "rah rah, our country will be saved by hockey!" For a moment I thought I might be in Canada, then the stars-and-stripes waved movingly, shimmeringly, behind the title. Let's go smack some Soviet arse-ski!

Read: Comrade Flick Filosopher's review of Calendar Girls. Posted by OutsideFood at January 7, 2004 12:00 PM

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