Friday, July 3, 2015

Plane and Fancy: Looking for Happy Landings

When movies were young, back in the 1890s, there was something called the Kinetoscope. This device allowed one viewer at a time to watch a very short film—on the order of “Fred Ott’s Sneeze”—through a peephole. Kinetoscopes were featured at amusement arcades, but it was not long before the concept of the movie theatre developed. From that time onward, movies were screened for mass audiences, and the communal experience became part of the allure.

Times, of course, have changed. We can now watch movies at home on our television sets or computer screens. We can even, if we’re obsessive, view them on our smartphones. But it was on a series of long airplane rides that I really came to feel I was returning to the peepshow days of old. On my recent Lufthansa flights to and from Frankfurt, every seat in economy class was equipped with its own small screen. Wearing a set of headphones and navigating via a touchscreen, I had free access to what seemed like hundreds of movies. I learned I could relieve the tedium of air travel by way of an up-close-and-personal moviegoing orgy, but also that certain types of flicks work much better than others when you are folded into a cramped seat for over ten hours of flying time.

On my outward-bound flight, I chose carefully, and ended with a satisfactory playlist. This was my chance to catch up with Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, in which three oddball siblings played by Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Adrien Brody travel by train across India as a way of coming to terms with their father’s death. To continue with the Indian motif, I moved on to The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. This was far more light-hearted than the Anderson film, and tried (overly?) hard for the exuberance of Bollywood extravaganzas. Still, the two flicks were similar in focusing on a westerner’s bedazed response to the chaotic splendors of India. After all that exoticism, it seemed fitting to return to the tried-and-true charms of a European fairytale. Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella had both magic and gusto, thanks to the nastiness of Cate Blanchett’s wicked stepmother. But for me the big surprise was Ex Machina, a scifi thriller with both a sleek look and a twisty storyline. Ex Machina is hardly a cast-of-thousands epic, and the very simplicity of its dramatic demands made it ideal airplane viewing.

Coming home, I did less well. Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, the story of Margaret and Walter Keane, was easy enough to follow, but the characters played by Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz never entirely held my interest. I next checked out Les Miserables, to see how well a solemn and grandiose stage musical could transfer to the screen. Alas, the combination of realistic squalor and characters belting arias into the camera lens struck me as grotesque, and I quit well before the midway point. Another film that didn’t work was Kingsman, the British spy caper that seemed much too complicated to follow, given the distractions of meal service and seatmates jostling to reach the aisle.

Finally I settled on an intriguing little romantic flick I’d barely heard of: Celeste and Jesse Forever. Its producer, co-writer, and star is Rashida Jones, the talented and gorgeous daughter of Quincy Jones and The Mod Squad’s Peggy Lipton. She plays opposite Andy Samberg, but in this rueful contemporary tale these two soulmates are not moving toward marriage, but rather toward divorce. It’s well-played and seems wholly contemporary. Today I guess no one seems to expect happily-ever-after.


  1. I've seen none of these - and only The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is on the To Watch list. Kingsman looked awful in the trailers - and surprised me with its popularity and good reviews. At the movie theater seeing something else I had to sit through a lengthy behind the scenes trailer for Les Miserables which spent about ten minutes touting the actors singing live - instead of lip synching to pre recorded songs. I didn't care about the movie before that 10 minutes of my life, and I certainly didn't care about it after. Call me Cinema Grump.

  2. OK, I will. My most memorable airplane movie memory: very late at night over the Atlantic, watching a real oldie, Astaire and Rogers in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. Most everyone in coach was asleep, so they didn't see what I saw: in this true-life story of a famous dance team, Irene Castle discovering that her beloved husband had just been killed in a plane crash.