Saturday, August 31, 2013


AMOUR, the multinational but basically French film, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film of 2012. It was nominated for four other Oscars, including Best Film and for Best Actress (Emmanuelle Riva). As most viewers have noted, she probably should have won, certainly over a 22 year old neophyte whose career is just beginning (Jennifer Lawrence in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK).

AMOUR was directed by Michael Haneke, who also gave us two rigidly disciplined studies in paranoia and fear in THE WHITE RIBBON, 2009, and CACHE, 2005. He has been praised and vilified for his obsessively cool distance from his subject matter, and AMOUR falls into this stylistic point of view. First, AMOUR is a difficult film to watch. It deals bluntly with end of life decisions that few people want to face. Some critics have even said it endorses euthanasia.

Two aging but seemingly healthy music teachers are seen at a concert by one of her star pupils. They seem very much in love, laughing on the way home, touching each other. The next morning at breakfast, Anne stops speaking and looks off into space for several minutes; her husband Georges tries to see if it is a prank, but she has no memory of the incident. Before long we realize she has had a stroke. Surgery has left her paralyzed on her right side and confined to a wheel chair. As her condition worsens, she makes Georges promise he will never take her back to the hospital. And so begins his loving but exhausting time as her caretaker. Played skillfully by famed French actor Jean-Louis Tintrignant, who starred in one of the great films of the 20th century THE CONFORMIST, 1970), Georges is a loving husband but also a stubborn intellectual who seems to doubt that anyone can help him as care giver, including his middle-aged daughter. He becomes obsessive about her care without realizing what it is doing to him  mentally and emotionally. Watching Anne and Georges interact as she suffers a second stroke is painful and reminds us that the dying process is not as quick and easy as tv and movies often depict it.

I couldn't help thinking of one of my favorite Bette Davis movies, DARK VICTORY (1939), in which she plays Judith Traherne, a headstrong socialite who discovers she is dying from brain disease. Through the process of accepting her fate, she has become a better person and has married her doctor.
In the last scenes of the movie, she and her companion have already sent her husband off to a medical conference, and they are planting in their garden. Judith feels a chill and comments how dark it's getting. The warning that she would quickly go blind is fulfilled. She says goodbye to her friend, the servants, the dogs and then goes into her room where she lies down. All of this to the beautiful music of Max Steiner and celestial voices while the image from her point of view blurs into nothing. Well, that's the way they handled death in 1939, and in American movies it hasn't changed that much.

AMOUR doesn't have a musical score, except for piano performances, mostly on cds. Some scenes are painfully long, as if to remind us how much longer it takes to do the simplest tasks when aging. Georges' love for his wife and his resistance to help lead to disturbing decisions, which the director shows in stark, harrowing detail. AMOUR is a film that asks vital questions of us all and one that should be seen, no matter how afraid we are of those questions and answers.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

THE BUTLER, History within History

THE BUTLER, directed by Lee Daniels (PRECIOUS) and loosely based on the real life story of White House butler Eugene Allen, is not the movie the previews and critics prepared us for.  And that's a good thing. Instead, this is a crafty and often moving history lesson wrapped in a family drama. Oscar winner Forrest Whitaker (THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, in which he played Idi Amin) plays Cecil Gaines, who served as butler to Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan. I expected a cursory sweep of big moments during those years, and I was partially correct. We see Cecil reading stories to Caroline Kennedy, we feel his discomfort as Lyndon Johnson uses the "N" word while working to expand civil rights, we enjoy Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan in a red outfit running the White House, we watch an intimate scene in which Cecil brings JFK his daily regimen of pills, and many more.

But THE BUTLER digs deeper, primarily into two dramas, the Civil Rights Movement and Cecil's family problems. His wife is played by Oprah Winfrey in a surprisingly effective performance. We watch her endure her husband's long absences, her older son's joining the civil rights movement and being shunned by his father for too many years, and her younger son's death in Vietnam. During these years Cecil tries to adhere to his job description of having no political opinion and being invisible in his job. But Cecil finally emerges from his self-imposed isolation, and that gives actor Forrest Whitaker his finest moments.

One of the film's sharpest techniques is cross-cutting between seemingly dissimalar events. Though obvious in intent, they still pack a wallop. While the White House staff is preparing for a state dinner, we cut to a civil rights sit-in the deep South. It is the most disturbing sequence in the film, moments that actually made this white viewer feel shame. This and other scenes show the civil rights movement in its strength, horror, and triumph like no other fictional film has before.  THE BUTLER is a film that all of us should see and ponder. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

ELYSIUM falls to two new British series

In 2009 South African-Canadian director Neill Blomkamp surprised the film world with the genre-busting DISTRICT 9, a sci-fi parable about the wrongs of apartheid. With its mixture of politics, crustacean aliens, and suspenseful aliens, the film won four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Now with a huge budget, he's back with ELYSIUM, another futuristic action film that attempts to mix politics with sci-fi and action. The premise is promising. In 2154 the earth is a ravaged wasteland where the proles work to support the lifestyles of the one-percenters who live in a space colony above. In Elysium there is no pain but total pleasure, automatic healing of any disease, and NO immigration. Matt Damon, our favorite everyman, is exposed to radiation on his factory job and has 5 days to get to Elysium or he dies. Against impossible and bloody odds, Matt meets his fate in the form of Jodie Foster who plays the Minister of Defense. She seems frost-bitten with her tight power suits and strange, constantly changing accent. Perhaps in the future we will all be talking like this. But this stab at globalism falls flat. In the long run, ELYSIUM has great visuals, good acting, and a weak plot that does not deliver on its promise.

On the other hand, there are two new series on cable that are considerably better.

THE WHITE QUEEN, STARZ, once again takes us into the Middle Ages and this time it's not Tudor territory. It's the War of the Roses and three powerful women vie for throne of England. The House of York, headed by King Edward IV, is precariously holding out for a male heir. Edward has fallen for a commoner!! Elizabeth Woodville is the White Queen, who immediately incurs the wrath of Warwick, the King's advisor.
Much skull-duggery ensues, along with lots of skin. Yet this is not as slick and empty as HBO's THE TUDORS, because it hews to history fairly closely. Its violence and sex are not entirely gratuitous either. The production values--costuming, sets, et al, are sumptious without being too sumptious, and the action clips along at an exciting pace.

BROADCHURCH, BBC AMERICA, is yet another police procedural, yet it's not drenched in darkness and rain like AMC's THE KILLING or TWIN PEAKS. Instead, it examines an English seaside community's reaction to the murder of a young boy. A former Dr. Who, David Tennant plays chief inspector Alec Hardy, a fine detective who has a past. Olivia Colman plays his partner who is still smarting from not being named chief investigator. Their tensions create added drama to the story, as do the secrets held by almost every character. This is mystery with a touch of Agatha Christie at her best but also with a modern sensibility.

Both these series are available by streaming and will be on DVD soon. DEFINITELY WORTH THE WATCHING.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


Some movies seem to be uncanny time capsules of an era or decade or even a day. I'm not referring to historical or period pieces, whether they be LINCOLN or the loopy MARIE ANTOINETTE. Time capsules are movies that were contemporary when made and now remind us (those of us who were alive then) of those times but also give a fair fix on the era for those who were not born yet (a growing majority).

SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977) is a prime example. Nothing evokes the late '70's Disco era like John Travolta strutting his stuff and his Brooklyn accent. The soapy melodrama is hypercharged, the clothes are spot-on wonderful or ghastly, depending on your taste, and polyester with the Bee-Gees has never been groovier.

WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (1989) remains one of the most popular romantic comedies of the last fifty years. Its appeal comes from Nora Ephron's socially smart script that addresses the age-old question: "Can a man and a woman be friends without falling in love?" Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan take about 12 years to find out. This time our time capsule is based on clothing and hair styles and even Meg's make-up. As she goes from college to her thirties, she tries so many combinations that we wish she'd decide already. But Meg and the film, like WORKING GIRL (1988), are great reminders of how style can often determine attitudes and behavior in society.

PRIVATE BENJAMIN (1980) stars Goldie Hawn as a spoiled Jewish princess whose second husband dies of a heart attack on their wedding night. In the blankness of her grief and her naivete, she is persuaded to join the army. Laughing yet? You will. Judy Benjamin undergoes basic training under the impatient eyes of Captain Lewis, played to sadistic and hilarious effect by Eileen Brennan. The film takes this premise and gives many of us a time capsule of one of the most miserable times of our lives. Mine was in the summer of 1957, and I was Private Benjamin, just out of high school! Watching Goldie try to climb over those walls, get out of the gas house without breathing, or getting over a rough terrain with bullets whizzing above her head were vivid reminders of my basic training experience, except there were no laughs for Goldie or me, except on the screen.

But watching this comedy again brought up a new idea that hardly occurred to viewers back in 1980. Judy Benjamin suffers sexual harrassment from a superior officer who attempts to rape her when she won't jump from his plane. It seemed funny once; now it seems obscene, and fortunately, the attitudes towards this kind of action are changing.

Do you have any time capsule movies? E-mail me at

Friday, August 9, 2013

Explosions...check. Car chases...check. Incredible plots...check. August movies...CHECK!!

As the summer movie season gasps to a close, there are still a few action films that offer some diversion, if not clarity or purpose. In order of release, here are the last few entries.

WHITE HOUSE DOWN, not to be confused with INDEPENDENCE DAY or MARS ATTACKS or many others in which our first residence gets blown apart, features Jamie Foxx as a cool president obviously meant to remind us of our current cool president. He's caring, savvy, has a loving family, and he's black. Unfortunately, he's also under attack from a commando force of unhinged vets under the leadership of a demented James Woods, who just happens to be the head of security. To save our nation and his own little girl (wow, what an innovation), we have Tatum Channing, who seems to be in every other action movie this year. After constant chases, including a hilarious race around the White House Lawn in those beefy limos, the outlandish plot finally shuts down with a whimper. Some of this is fun, especially the performances of Maggie Gyllenhall as a White House secret service leader and Richard Jenkins as the Speaker of the House. There are surprises that defy credibility, but then this is about Washington, so none of them are logical or particularly surprising.

WOLFERINE. That hairy muscular mutant with psycho tendencies, a bad hair cut to suggest his wolfishness, and projectile claws is back, though who wanted him, I'm not sure. To provide a new setting for Hugh Jackman's rage, we travel to Japan for big and nasty business, the Yakuzu gangsters, family strife as Wolferine's old friend is dying, and three beautiful women, two of whom are deadly. As Jackman flexes and slashes his way through this mess, the plot spins out of control into bad sci-fi mad scientist territory. Open at your own risk.

2 GUNS. Certainly the pick of this crop, TWO GUNS features action favorite Mark Wahlberg and actor of all genres Denzel Washington as two guys pulling a small town heist, one that explodes (along with a lot of things in this movie) into non-stop gunfights, car chases, Mexican mafia violence, and plot twists that defy explanation. Let's just say these guys are not who they or we think they are. Their interactions are akin to those of the heroes of series like BEVERLY HILLS COP and LETHAL WEAPON. Denzel is usually the straight (and smarter) man for Mark's off the wall jokes and decisions, and many of the fast quips are quite clever but don't speed the plot. Let's just say that there are a lot of triple crosses in this caper, which moves at breakneck pace, not allowing you to think how nonsensical some of them are. How could they be when we are talking about the Navy, the CIA, the Mexican drug trade, et al?
This is watchable, though Denzel is slumming and Mark is above his usual element. Their support, though, is top notch. Bill Paxton is a creepy, sadistic CIA operative, and Edward James Olmos is a creepy, sadistic drug lord. Collectively, they make 2 GUNS worth watching.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Crazy, Lazy Lists

Entertainment Weekly, that bastion of middling pop culture, recently published a special issue called "The Top 100," which included the top 100 movies, top 100 tv shows, top 100 novels, top 100 albums (yes, we used to call them that), 50 top plays, and so on. As one reader put it, the magazine managed in one full swoop to @#$%^*(}% all of its readers, including this one (yes, I admit it!). Many of the choices were inevitable and some were woefully misguided.

Some blatant mistakes: Evelyn Waugh's brilliant BRIDESHEAD REVISTED was left off the best novels list (PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT, THE STAND, the Harry Potter novels, etc. were included!) and the magnificent tv series BRIDESHEAD REVISTED, generally considered one of the finest in history,was shunt aside for the likes of THE REAL WORLD, THE RIFLEMAN, SURVIVOR, AMERICAN IDOL, CHAPPELLE'S SHOW, DAWSON'S CREEK, BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD, ET AL.

Novel No Shows: Faulkner's LIGHT IN AUGUST, his most profound and readable. Vonnegut's SLAUGHTER HOUSE-5 and Gunter Grass' THE TIN DRUM, two of the greatest antiwar satires, both full of compassion and humor. ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND and THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS pull me back again and again. No film version has come close to its illustrations, its puzzles, paradoxes and original characters. Huxley's BRAVE NEW fiction, a new language, simply amazing. D.H. Lawrence's SONS AND LOVERS and/or WOMEN IN LOVE, not only ahead of their time sexually but also great writing. And the non-listers list goes on and on.

So, here comes another list to get upset about, and more will follow:

Best Animated Feature: PINNOCHIO, 1940, Disney's finest film takes the Italian fairy tale about a wooden puppet who must prove himself before he becomes a real boy. The characters are fully developed humans or personified animals who are even more human. The fox Honest John and his punching bag accomplice the cat Gideon are perfect con men, Stromboli, the traveling showman, is a monstrous showman, Pleasure Island is a paradise for immature boys who are turned into donkeys, and Monstro the whale is truly terrifying. But what's truly amazing are the visuals that seem more fluid and real than most movies even today. The animators have mastered the tricks of great cinematography taking us into the mouth of a whale or on a joy ride on Pleasure Island. The film, with its old world details of Geppetto's workshop and the allures of Pleasure Island, is a worthy precursor to films like INCEPTION.

2. Best Comedy TV Series: THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. No other comedy series has the heart, comedic invention, and more wonderful characters than this one with lovable but flawed characters who work beautifully together in a workplace filled with
absurdity and reality.  Mary Richards (Moore) was a tv trail blazer, a single woman in her 30's who is seeking a career, not a man to care for her. She was a delightful mix of ambition, caring, and humor who had to handle her gruff but gentle bear of a boss, played to perfection by Ed Asner; Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), the daffy news anchor who  commits malaprops by the dozens; Betty White's lascivious Sue Ann Niven whose sexual asides contrast with Mary's gee whiz innocence, and the rest of a memorable cast.

Now, the above is not really a list. Just two entries in two categories. Time to go wild. LISTOMANIA!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

This is not another lousy TRANSFORMERS!!

Though most of the summer blockbusters have busted from overload and hype, there is one I can wholeheartedly endorse: Guillermo del Toro's epic monster vs. monster robot PACIFIC RIM. Why? If you have seen del Toro's visionary masterpiece PAN'S LABYRINTH, then you know why. If you have not, SEE IT! It' s a magnificent combination of fairy tale, the Spanish Civil War, and a little girl who treads the thin line between the two. Del Toro's creative make-up for the various creatures in the labyrinth are both horrific and sublime, and this is brought to a gigantic scale in PACIFIC RIM.

It seems the threat from outer space has turned to monsters from the deep, as in "prehistoric" creatures featured in Japanese movies eons ago. So we get to see Mothra, Godzilla, and dozens of others of their ilk, but the fun surprise is seeing so many variations of the great designs for the ALIEN series. Del Toro uses these creatures freshly and drops in amazing details, some for laughs, some for clues. The movie itself is spectacularly beautiful, every shot flooded with lush colors of hope (mostly blues) and reds and oranges (guess what).

Believe it or not, there are human beings in PACIFIC RIM, played by talented actors. Idris Elba (THE WIRE) is a powerful presence as the head of the robot program with dark secrets. Rinko Kikuchi (who won an Oscar nomination for BABEL) plays a pilot whose family was killed during an earlier attack. She is mesmerizing as her mind melds with her co-pilot's (Charlie Hunnam) during battle.
PACIFIC RIM should appeal to more than teen age boys and sci-fi fanatics. It's got beauty, horror, and great visual impact. In comparison to the other blockbusters in the last few years, PACIFIC RIM is a Delacroix gone wild, while the rest are colorless sketches.

A footnote: If you are not watching CBS's knockout series of Stephen King's UNDER THE DOME, then get with it. Don't start in the middle. Go back and stream the earlier episodes from the beginning. Each one is a gem, and each ends in suspense and directions you never expect. The characters trapped under this suspicious huge dome are good, bad, and both, and they are all played by talented, forceful actors, young and old. It's not often when a network presents an intelligent and mysterious thriller and makes it work.