Tuesday, December 27, 2011

THE DESCENDANTS--Life Comes Back to Bite Ya

Alexander Payne has directed a trio of serio-comic films about middle class families. First there was ELECTION(1999) with Reese Witherspoon as a dynamo high school over-achiever who manipulates and ruins the life of her teacher, played with perfect underdog sadness by Matthew Broderick. Then came 2002's ABOUT SCHMIDT with a perfectly cast Jack Nicholson as a sour widower who discovers there are still pleasures in life and family. And in 2004 Payne surprised the industry with his indie hit SIDEWAYS, an often hilarious road trip picture with Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church as two pals hitting the wineries of Napa Valley. There are tinges of sadness and disappointment in all of these films. But that's just a side effect.

In his new film THE DESCENDANTS, Payne still shows a comic touch, but the film is far more introspective and deals with questions of infidelity, middle age crises, and impossible choices when a loved one is hopelessly lost to a coma. From previews and reviews, you probably have a good idea about the plot. Suffice it to say, Matt King (George Clooney), a wealthy lawyer in Hawaii, has more than his share of problems, all of which cause him to look at himself and his family in a more sober, responsible way. But it is a tough journey. He hardly knows his two daughters, a rambunctious pre-teen (Amara Miller) and a bitter teen (Shailine Woodley). He is the sole trustee for an inherited area of natural beauty that his cousins want to sell for millions. And is on the hunt for his wife's paramour. He quickly realizes that he has been clueless about his family, his life, and his future.

George Clooney has had an amazing career. He is natural and naturally attractive. He can play the suave leader of the OCEANS 11 films. He can take the back seat in his own directorial film GOOD LUCK, AND GOOD NIGHT (2005), a tense drama about Edward R. Murrow versus not only McCarthyism but also his network CBS. And he was hysterical in the Coen Brothers' classic comic tale O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000). But his performance as Matt in THE DESCENDANTS is a revelation. The slickness, the ease, and charm have been mostly erased, and we see a man on the edge, a man who either learns to love and deal with his kids or lose them. An Oscar nomination, if not a win, is in order. Amara and Woodley are perfect complements to Clooney. They are both adrift and have been for years, and it's not all Matt's fault. They display their anger and confusion with strong believablity. THE DESCENDANTS is a family film (not the kiddies, though) that parents and teens should see together. It not only entertains but also heals.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Switches and Coal for SHERLOCK...Delectable goodies for HUGO

The Christmas blockbuster bloat has begun, and so far, we are one up and one down, way down. First the bad news, the first Michael Ritchie Sherlock Holmes was a plotless, frenetic wreck, so they had to make a sequel. But did they have to do it so blandly and lacking in any wit or substance? If I remember correctly, Conan Doyle's brilliant detective depended on his wits and his use of logic, not his brawn. In SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS, director Ritchie continues his absurd use of slow motion, stop action, Kung Fu, you name it. The only interesting character is his Dr. Watson, played with intelligent humor, by Jude Law. Again, these two play the protagonists as a love-hate bromance. Robert Downey, Jr., the least British Sherlock I have ever seen or heard, is reduced to pratfalls and lame jokes. Go at your own risk!

Now for the good news. Martin Scorsese, that great director of mean streets movies (GOODFELLAS, TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL) and a leading force in film restoration, has produced and directed HUGO, based on the imaginative graphic novel of the same name. HUGO takes place in the early 1930's where the title character lives in a secret garret above a huge train station. His father has taught him the love of inventions and movies, but, when he dies, Hugo is forced by his alcoholic uncle to run all the clocks in the station. Fortunately the old drunk wanders away, and Hugo has the run of the place for himself, except for the police guard who is always on the outlook for derelict children he can send to an orphanage.
Hugo has two life-changing encounters in the station, one with an imaginative girl and the other with a mysterious old toy seller(the great Ben Kingsley). To tell more of the plot would spoil it.

However, Hugo and his new friend Isabelle have a great adventure, giving Scorsese the freedom to exploit 3-D in its best incarnation since AVATAR. The kids are chased up and down the machine-like innards of the towers and the clocks in dizzying tracking shots. The sets, costumes, and decor all convey the beauty of a tintype of Old Paris and we see many of the great monuments in a magical light. The two young actors are perfectly cast and give touching performances. Scorsese loves movies, and this is his valentine to the art he has given so much devotion and talent. DON'T MISS HUGO!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

DiCaprio Comes of Age

In 1992 Jack Nicholson added putty and make-up to take on the lead role in HOFFA, a loose biography of one of our toughest union leaders. The film, though made with care and a script by David Mamet, was leaden, sort of like the fate that may have happened to the real HOFFA. So, it must have been with some trepidation that Clint Eastwood decided to helm J. EDGAR, the new biographical take on one of the most controversial American officials of modern times.

The real surprise of this film is that Leonardo DiCaprio stars as J.Edgar Hoover, a man who came to resemble an unhappy fire plug as he aged. Eastwood stages the highlights and backgrounds of Hoover's career, and he is careful to give his subject both steel and cowardice, strength and weakness. His technique is to link key moments in the Hoover story with other important events. Among these are his relationship with another steely battleship, his mother, played to perfection by Judi Dench, his handling of the Lindberg kidnapping case, his face-offs with every president he served, and, most importantly, his latent homosexuality with his chief assistant played by Armie Hammer.

This technique gives us some idea of how Hoover built the FBI into one of the most secretive and powerful agencies in U.S. history. He realized early on that if he was to be attacked, he should be ready with a stronger counter attack. In other words, keep a list and be sure it's full of incriminating dirt. His files ranged from the Kennedys to Barbara Streisand to Martin Luther King. No one of influence was exempt.

DiCaprio, first known for his intense juvenile roles in movies like WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE and later for his romantic idol qualities in TITANIC and ROMEO AND JULIET, gives his Hoover a gravitas that is more than the superb changes in make-up and weight. For the first time, we totally forget about the kid who yelled, "King of the world." Martin Scorsese used DiCaprio somewhat effectively as a young unionist in GANGS OF NEW YORK, but not particularly well as Howard Hughes in THE AVIATOR. Frankly, his playing footsie with Kate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn was ludicrous. But in J.EDGAR, he earns new respect as an actor forging a memorable character, full of flaws, unattractive in appearance, shocking in his lack of judgment and morality, and yet somehow a man who earns our sympathy. The credit goes to both the star and his director the estimable Clint Eastwood, who knows what it means to change his persona.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Immortals vs. Vampires: Less than the sum of their body parts

When I was a youngster, I loved Edith Hamilton's take on Greek Mythology. Each story had one simple illustration, an idealized drawing of Icarus falling from the sky or Psyche discovering Cupid's face. And the stories were even better. Edith has been the go-to gal for most young people, but now movies, tv, and games have taken over, and the tales are now mismashed into a steady stream of confused mayhem.

Consider the pre-CGI films that featured Ray Harryhausen's inventive stop-motion monsters battling C-list actors as Jason and his crew. Jason must rout screaming harpies, animated skeletons, the hydra (my favorite), and so on. JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS did have some good moments and it did hew fairly closely to the Jason/Medea/Golden Fleece legend. Plus there was the great Bernard Herrmann's "original" score which was created from six or so of his great films of the past like VERTIGO. In 1981, Harryhausen returned to form with the surprise hit CLASH OF THE TITANS, featuring A-list actors as the gods (Laurence Olivier as a doddering Zeus) and Harry Hamlin as Perseus. This time Medusa is his best creation, a slimy multi-headed female monster turning Perseus's men to stone. Again, the story is not too far from the original, and the movie is a delightful and cheesy funfest.

But, times and special effects have changed, as seen in last year's dismal remake of CLASH OF THE TITANS and the recent entry, THE IMMORTALS, which purports to be the story of Theseus, the Minotaur, and the war between the Titans and the Gods. All of this is so crudely sloshed together that it's difficult to tell who is who and what is happening. Theseus, a buff Henry Cavil (soon to be the new Superman), must lead a rebellion against the evil Hyperion (Mickey Rourke?) who seems locked in his role from THE WRESTLER. Theseus spends one fateful night with Phaedra, the virgin oracle, and after becoming a martyr in the final battle, becomes a demigod who will lead the next battle between the Titans and the Gods. Hmmm, I suspect a sequel post haste. The film itself is curious. Some of the scenes are beautifully designed and lit. The director himself chose to imitate his favorite painter Caravaggio, known for dark chiaroscuro and dramatic, often steamy scenes from mythology as well as the Bible. These work, but the clunky dialogue and Cavill's bland performance don't. Both the gods and the warriors fight with little more than sandals and aptly placed shields, and like the similar 300, this film looks as if the cast was recruited from Venice Beach, California. The time period is before that of the Troy legends, yet we have Roman arches, classical Greek sculptures, and a corruption of the Minotaur legend. So, if you are looking to introduce your kids or grandkids to Greek tales, forget THE IMMORTALS.

You would also be wise to skip the fourth installment of the TWILIGHT series, BREAKING DAWN, in which we witness the wedding, deflowering, pregnancy, and "turning" (becoming a vampire) of our heroine Bela. Most of this is not pretty, especially the last few. There are montages of pulsing blood that owe much to previous Dracula films. ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE EXORCIST are also heavily used. And the delivery itself is a great tool for Planned Parenthood. Except for these scenes, the film's pace is leaden with full close-ups of the dreamy lovers, both of whom look stoned throughout. I will say this for Kristen Stewart; she has developed into a fine actress and looks terrific, except when pregnant. The same cannot be said for her male co-stars, especially Taylor Lautner, who simply doesn't understand the lines he has to say. After BREAKING DAWN 2, he won't have to...in anything.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

REVENGE is, how shall I put it, Sweet!

This fall's network and cable line-ups are surprisingly entertaining. Now that THE PLAYBOY CLUB, CHARLIE'S ANGELS, and several other duds are history, we have good range of dramatic stories to choose from. REVENGE(ABC), a sudsy melodrama that recalls camp classics like DYNASTY and FALCON CREST and is loosely based on THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, takes place in the posh environs of the Hamptons. Madeleine Stowe plays Victoria Grayson, "Queen of the Hamptons," who rules her world with an iron and sometimes dangerous hand. Ready to wreck that world is Emily Thorne, who has a secret past and plans to wreak vengeance on all those who helped frame her father as a terrorist, the Graysons being on the top of the list. The plots are often ingenious, the dialogue amusingly baroque, and the acting of the major characters so seriously dramatic that it bristles with humor. REVENGE is one of those guilty pleasures that pulls you back each week.

PRIME SUSPECT(NBC), based very loosely on the famed Helen Mirren BBC series, is a detective procedural set in New York. The expected tension between a smart and off-putting female cop working with a bunch of macho guys who sit around the office drinking scotch. So each episode she proves herself not only their equal but often their superior, which only increases the problem. Maria Bello, an actress who has lifted many a lesser movie and was especially strong in A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, gives Detective Jane Tennison a gritty and believable personality.

On CBS' new crime drama PERSON OF INTEREST Michael Emerson (that weird guy on LOST) plays a brilliant billionaire scientist who has rigged a system that keeps everyone under his surveilance. But this time he's an agent for good. Once he spots a person who is in danger, he lets his enforcer (Jim Caviezel) prevent murder. It helps that Caviezel is an ex-combat soldier who knows every fighting move there is. Although this show runs the risk of being repetitive, so far it has ingeniously delivered some of the action and magic we used to love in the MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE tv series.

A totally different concept inspires ABC's ONCE UPON A TIME. This show takes place in two very different worlds: the land of fairy tales and a modern town called Storyville. Unbenowst to its residents, the town is under a curse from the Queen in the Snow White tale. And it gets more complicated and entertaining with each episode as we try to figure out which world will dominate in this witty battle between good and evil.

But the most dramatically engrossing drama is on cable's SHOWTIME. Claire Danes stars as a brilliant but unstable CIA agent who is determine to out former Iraq prisoner of being a terrorist turncoat. This cat and mouse game involves the man's family's problems after seven years of separation and Danes' intense mood swings. The writing is sharp but the actors are even sharper, and the show is full of suspense and surprises. But be warned: this is Showtime, so there's plenty of sex and violence, some of it actually pertinent to the plot.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

THE TREE OF LIFE, a film for those who love film

Terrence Malick, the famously secretive director of DAYS OF HEAVEN, THE THIN RED LINE, and THE NEW WORLD, has produced and directed his masterpiece, THE TREE OF LIFE. Malick is primarily a sensualist and images and music are what interest him most. So it is no wonder that when this film premiered at Cannes earlier this year, it did so to lavish praise and boos of derision. Those who like a straight, linear story told at a fast pace will not "get" Malick's treatise on the two major human drives. One is grace; the other is nature.

To illustrate this tension, Malick sets his intimate story in Waco, Texas, in the 1950's, where the nurturing Mrs. O'Brien embodies grace. She is played with luminous warmth by Jessica Chastain, who also shone in THE HELP this year. Nature, both creative and destructive, is seen in Mr. O'Brien, played by Brad Pitt, who manages the difficult role of a strict disciplinarian who believes that his sons should be tough and ready for the world that has disappointed him. This small and commonplace story is couched in a spectacular series of images that include pre-history, the destruction of the world, the creation (compared to the birth of the O'Brien's first child), and magnificent views of the natural world, both grand and intimate.

As an adult, Jack, the eldest son, is a successful architect, who has never accepted the death of his younger brother at the age of 19. Jack is played by Sean Penn. Most of the reactions to the young man's death are heard in whispery voice-overs from Jack and his parents. What is Malick trying to tell us about life and death that hasn't been said in other films such as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (an obvious influence) or Disney's creation sequence in FANTASIA? Nothing and everything. Malick's gift is to remind us that there is more to believe than what Mr. O'Brien says about learning to be mean in a mean world. He seems to favor grace over nature with images of Mrs. O'Brien bathed in light, even seeming to float above the earth.

THE TREE OF LIFE is now on DVD, though it would be preferable to see it on the big screen. Still, with HD and/or Blu-Ray, this a remarkable film that you will discuss at length when you watch it with those you love.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


As we look at the myriad choices cable tv offers us, we should be thrilled with our bounty. But on closer inspection, we realize we just have more trash, not choice. The disintegration of American taste is heading towards its nadir. The Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, and the History Channel, to mention a few, have fallen on hard times, as evidenced by their cheap appeals to the underbelly of the middle class. Discovery gives us thought-destroying junk like AMERICAN CHOPPERS, DIRTY JOBS, and AMERICAN GUNS. TLC challenges us with KATE PLUS 8 (Yes, she will never go away!), 19 KIDS AND COUNTING, and shows about dwarfs, obseity, hoarding, you name it. And the HITLER, OOPS, HISTORY CHANNEL gives us PAWN STARS and HAIRY BIKERS.
Thank heavens for my DVR.

But perhaps the most depressing downgrade is the "classic" mode presented by the premium channels (for which you pay a premium price). HBO and SHOWTIME seem to be the biggest offenders. Though they do offer some excellent documentaries, their historical dramas are often absurd. Take Showtime's THE TUDORS, if you can. There's not much history here or even solid drama, especially when you remember PBS masterpieces such as THE SIX WIVES OF HENRY VIII or ELIZABETH with the unsurpassed Glenda Jackson in the title role. These were elaborate, beautifully written, superbly acted series. The recent THE TUDORS offered lots of glamour, sex, violence, and little else. The historical inacuracies are blatantly laughable. The casting of Jonathan Rhys Meyers, a slight but talented actor who had starred as Elvis Presley, worked in the opening season. But most of us know that Henry may have once been a handsome bloke. That's not the Henry we see in Holbein's famous portrait. As he desperately ran through his six wives, his size bloated due to excesses, wounds, and gout. Little of this shows in the Showtime fun and games show.

The most recent hysterical history is Showtime's THE BORGIAS, which at least mirrors some of the excesses of the Papacy under that infamous family. Yet even here the emphasis is not on dirty politics as much as it is on Borgia bedding, whether its the Pope and his mistress, his sons and their mistresses, cardinals and their doxies, all in lascivious detail. Really, both THE TUDORS and THE BORGIAS are little more than dressy soft porn.

On a slightly better level, HBO's ROME presented strong drama and spectacle but perhaps again overdid it in the sex and violence areas.

But perhaps the biggest recent historical blunder is SPARTACUS, STARZ' stab at making something sleazier than THE BORGIAS and THE TUDORS. They achieve their goal with wretched acting (Xena the warrior princess is on hand), cheap looking sets and costumes, and lots of flesh, both female and male. Also in the mix is abundant sadism, torture, and bloodshed. What's wrong with this? Nothing, if that's all you want. Think back to the historical Spartacus, the subject of drama and ballet and especially Stanley Kubrick's epic film from 1960. Kubrick presented an intelligent drama with superb performances from the likes of Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, and Laurence Olivier (all in one incredible scene). Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons are also excellent.

There should be a warning label on this "historical" series: NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH THE CLASSIC VERSIONS!

Sunday, October 30, 2011


When I hear about a movie with either Gene Hackman, Rachel Weisz, Dustin Hoffman, or John Cusack, I am THERE. So, I was surprised this afternoon when I watched RUNAWAY JURY, not to be confused with RUNAWAY TRAIN or THE RUNAWAYS or a dirty video by Kanye West. Somehow I must have been asleep when RUNAWAY JURY opened in 2003.

Based on yet another John Grisham legal thriller, RUNAWAY JURY rises above the usual bloated efforts made from Grisham's terse, screenplay-ready novels. Instead director Gary Fleder handles a densely complicated plot with aplomb and with Hitchcock's favorite device--withholding key evidence until the last moment. A cocky John Cusack seems an unwilling juror at first, but his liasion with a gutsy, yet vulnerable Rachel Weisz suggests a deeper agenda. Dustin Hoffman as the crusading lawyer sueing a mega gunmaking corporation faces the great Gene Hackman, using all his reptilian charm and the NRA's tentacles not only to buy the jurors but to discredit them as well. But somehow they are both being offered millions from a mystery caller. All of this, including some truly dirty tricks by Hackman's team, make RUNAWAY JURY a perfect movie for those who love mysteries, LAW AND ORDER, or legal thrillers.

And....if you're looking for more character-driven mysteries, you won't be disappointed with the new Masterpiece Mystery series CASE HISTORIES, based on Kate Atkinson's wry detective novels about Jackson Brodie, a Scottish detective with so much personal baggage he can hardly function. But function he does, and with wit and the noir's best asset--skepticism. So, if you haven't time for the novels, and they are rich in character development and a wonderful sense of Edinburgh, make time for the superb Masterpiece Mystery series CASE HISTORIES on PBS.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Pitt and Clooney Score Big

People ask if there are real movie stars today, people that could rank with Gable, Cooper, Davis, and either Hepburn. All they have to do is look at Brad Pitt and George Clooney in their latest films. MONEYBALL, based a non-fiction best seller, chronicles the 2002 season of the perennial losers, the Oakland Athletics. Pitt plays Billy Beane, a clubhouse manager who works with a smart Yale grad to choose the best possible team through computer stats. That throws him into conflict with the players, the manager, the owners, and especially the scouts, who are seen as a crusty group of seniors who don't believe in change or the hope of winning. Pitt's performance is one of his best, combining his winning charm with a sense of self-doubt. Unlike the treacly FIELD OF DREAMS or the terrific and hilarious BULL DURHAM, this film looks at baseball as a business that Beane is trying to improve for everyone.

George Clooney, who directed and co-starred in GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, has now helmed THE IDES OF MARCH, in which he plays a supporting role as a presidential candidate. The star and focus of the film is Ryan Gosling, who seems to be in a film every other week, and for good reason. His demeanor, his eyes, his intensity do not really give away too much of his character. And that's the point. The film begins with Gosling explaining his belief that the Clooney character is "the real thing." But, as in most political films, events conspire to shake his hero worship and even his own ethics. THE IDES OF MARCH isn't profound, possibly because politics are not, but it is a smart, tense look at the inside of a campaign where one mistake or misinterpretation can doom not only the candidate but people's hope for the future. A superb supporting cast that includes Marisa Tomei, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Paul Giamatti back up Gosling and Clooney, making this movie one to savor if you like great acting.

Monday, October 10, 2011

EPIDEMICS, CANCER, CIA SPOOKS..That's Entertainment!

Steven Soderbergh's scientific thriller CONTAGION not only entertains but also raises some important questions about why we need government, despite the growing demands of the Tea Party, the late Sarah Palin, and most elected officials of the GOP. The movie tracks the rapid spread of an unknown disease that begins in Hong Kong and quickly kills millions across the world. Soderbergh uses the fast, attention-getting devices he employed in his best film TRAFFIC (2000), for which he won an Oscar for Best Director. With low-key but penetrating performances by Kate Winslett, Laurence Fishbourne, Marion Coitiard and many others, CONTAGION examines the role of government facing a national, even global, crisis. The workings of the CDC and the World Health Organization are scrutinized and shown as groups of intelligent, caring, and hard-working people. Imagine the U.S. and the world without them. That seems to be the point of this entertaining but relevant thriller.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of the finest young actors working today. When all the super hero hunks have faded in a year or so, he will be working on projects far out of their reach. He made an indelible impression as the young architecture lover in 500 DAYS OF SUMMER, playing a naive young man who falls hopelessly in love with Summer, a free spirit who is not interested in long-time commitment. We get to see Gordon-Levitt as needy, obsessed, ecstatic, and almost suicidal, all because of how Summer treats him. His new film 50/50 dares to call itself a comedy about cancer, but it's not really a comedy. Instead this film examines the reaction of a fine young man (after all, he works for NPR) who has spinal cancer with a 50/50 chance to live. The comic elements come from his randy best friend (Seth Rogen, who actually makes this character likable). As the film develops, Gordon-Levitt shows the many emotions that illness and possible death can rouse in a person. It's his show and it's Oscar-worthy.

And, finally, if you get Showtime (if not, wait for Netflix, etc.),I hope you are watching the thoroughly engrossing new series HOMELAND. Yes, I know it's about prisoners of war, torture, all the things we want to forget Chaney introduced us to. But it's smartly written and keeps you guessing all the way. Is this All-American POW, now home after 8 years in captivity, possibly a terrorist? Or is the bi-polar, already loopy CIA agent totally off her wagon? The entire cast resonates with reality, especially Clare Danes as the agent. She has nervous energy to spare, but she's also appealing and occasionally appalling. HOMELAND is one to make time for.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Return of a Winner

In our short visit to Connecticut, we have been immersed in Disney. Our grandkids are 4 and 2 and currently love THE LITTLE MERMAID(1989), the film began the renaissance of classic Disney animation that petered out in the late 1950's. Told in lush, expressionist colors that recall the gorgeous paintings of BAMBI and especially PINOCHIO and its dreamlike under water sequences, THE LITTLE MERMAID is ever so loosely based on the tale by Hans Christian Anderson and sets a pattern that would be duplicated again and again in other new classics such as BEAUTY AND THE BEAST(1991), ALADDIN,(1992), and THE LION KING (1994).

So it was inevitable that we take four year old Rosie to see THE LION KING in 3-D. She was in awe of the spectacle but especially the cute animals, but she jumped into her mother's lap at key moments of Disney darkness--the wildebeast stampede and the snarling hyenas. I had been afraid that the 3-D version would be another mess like CLASH OF THE TITANS, but it was magnificent in its recreation of the original film's gorgeous vistas, streaked skies, the foreboding elephant graveyard, and, in fact, almost every visual aspect. While THE LITTLE MERMAID had not used famous voices, ALADDIN had employed a fantastic performance from comic Robin Williams as the genie, so the new trend was celebrity voices. Sometimes they work, often as not. But the two major adult characters in THE LION KING need commanding, strongly contrasting voices. And they got them!

Perhaps the most famous "Voice" in movies and television is James Earl Jones, who memorably gave Darth Vader his menace to the half-human, half-machine. Jones wisely toned down (or up, to be correct) his approach to voice Mustafa, the Lion King, and displayed strength as well as paternal love. As Scar, his jealous brother, Jeremy Irons practically stole the show, taking the Iago approach with smothering charm and cunning but acting with merciless cruelty. Iron's rich baritone-bass makes Scar one of Disney's greatest villains.

THE LION KING was made into one of the most successful Broadway musicals in history, holding on to its original songs and spirit and adding the puppetry magic of Julie Taymor's creative production as well as delightful new music. In the long run, the original film THE LION KING will always stand as one of the classic Disney animated films, proudly standing side by side with PINOCHIO and FANTASIA(both 1940), the height of Disney animation.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Movies to Make You Think AND Feel

Ever wonder why the better foreign movies are different from the typical Hollywood fare? Perhaps it's the guts to tackle difficult (read "depressing")subjects. Or maybe it's the pace without a car chase every five minutes and a booming soundtrack to mask how bad the movie really is (TRANSPORTERS 1, 2, 3).

We have recently watched two fine films, one Danish, and the other, French Canadian). The latter, INCENDIES (SCORCHED), relates a tortuous journey of adult twins looking into the mysterious past of their recently deceased mother. This 2010 drama tells the story of a woman with an incredibly painful past in the Middle East, who eventually escaped to Canada with her infant twins. What horrific things has she endured? And why does her will direct her children to look for the answers to her story and their parentage? The film follows the mother and her twins' difficult journeys towards the truth in a strongly realistic, take-no-prisoners style. The acting, especially that of the mother and the female twin, is superb. There is rarely any booming music, only elegaic when appropriate. INCENDIES was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film of 2010, but the trophy went to the Danish film IN A BETTER WORLD.

I could not easily choose one of these films above the other, but IN A BETTER WORLD is complex and gripping in terms of family dynamics, the loss of a parent, extreme bullying that leads to extreme results, a marriage dissolving.
And this is all in a small city in Denmark. The action shifts back and forth between an unidentified but brutal African country where a Danish doctor does incredible feats of caring and saving lives. Each time he goes home, he is faced with deeper conflicts within his family and another family, a Swedish business man whose wife has died from cancer and his bitter middle school son. The lack of communication between adults and their children leads to shocking actions, and the Danish doctor attempts to teach his son and his friend the nature of turning the other cheek. Ironically, he is forced to reconsider that attitude when faced with unspeakable evil in Africa. This beautifully filmed drama develops its central characters with vivid performances, believable conversations, and suspense.

Don't be afraid of movies like IN A BETTER WORLD and INCENDIES. Instead, embrace them and watch them with friends.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Famous Last Lines from Classic Films

Most of these are rather obvious, but here are some of my favorite last lines. See if you can match them to the movies they came from.

a. "Rosebud"

b. "After all, tomorrow is another day."

c. "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?"

d. "Oh, no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast."

e. "Hello, everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine."

f. "...there's no place like home."

g. "They can't lick us. And we'll go on forever, Pa...cause we're the people."

h. "The stuff that dreams are made of." "Huh?"

i. "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

j. "Oh, Jerry, please don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars."

k. "All right, Mr. DeMille. I'm ready for my close-up."

l. "Let's go home, Debbie."

m. "Well, nobody's perfect."

n. "Why, she wouldn't hurt a fly."

o. "Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!"

p. "Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life."

q. "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown (duh)

r. "This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off."

s. "I never had any friends on like I did when I was 12. Does anybody?"

t. "As you wish."

u. "The horror, the horror!"


2. ALIEN, 1979 15. SOME LIKE IT HOT, 1959



5. PSYCHO, 1960 18. STAND BY ME, 1986



8. THE WIZARD OF OZ, 1939 21. A STAR IS BORN, 1937, 1954


10. CHINATOWN, 1974


12. CASABLANCA, 1942

13. CITIZEN KANE, 1941

So, have fun and send some of your favorites.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Paul Rudd achieves the impossible

In the last ten years there have been so many movies with child-men, losers, and slackers as main characters that one shudders at the thought of another one called OUR IDIOT BROTHER. Think of these actors and their roles--Adam Sandler, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen. They are prime examples of the adolescent male who seems to never grow up. He exists to party, smoke a joint, play video games, and be as gross as possible.

Now we have OUR IDIOT BROTHER, which on the surface sounds like more of the same, but, be assured, this is a fresh take on the slacker syndrome and almost an antidote to those lame examples from the past few years. The main reason is Paul Rudd, who has added a few pounds for the part, grown a lot of hair and beard, and shed his usual smarter than thou persona. Rudd made his first positive impression in the delightful comedy CLUELESS (1995) playing a good-hearted liberal who genuinely cares for the main character, a teen based on Jane Austen's meddling EMMA. Since then he has been mostly a second banana to folks like Steve Carrell (THE FORTY YEAR OLD VIRGIN) and Will Ferrell (ANCHORMAN).

In OUR IDIOT BROTHER Rudd portrays Ned, a sweet guy who believes in trust and in helping people. He's just been released from prison for possession and sales of pot to a policeman (who entrapped him), his hippie girl friend has dumped him and taken his beloved dog, and he is forced to go home and stay with his mom and his sisters. At each stop Ned is painfully honest. He says what he thinks and does not seem to have a filter, which leads to some embarrassing domestic dilemmas with the sisters but also to the betterment of their lives. The movie is greatly aided by the sharp performances of Emily Mortimer as a passive mother who doesn't see that her controlling husband is having an affair, Elizabeth Banks as career-driven harridan, and Zooey Deschannel (a delight in 500 DAYS OF SUMMER), as a lesbian who strays and gets pregnant. They all love Ned, but he drives them all crazy with his innocent honesty.

But the film's driving force is Paul Rudd who gives Ned innocence as well as likeability. It's almost impossible not to like Ned because it's almost impossible not to like Paul Rudd.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Man Vs. Machine: Guess who wins

Over the years I have attempted to adjust to the constant challenges of the media. I finally gave up on my vast lp collection, but not before transferring them to cds or my i-pod with a neat lp converter. I have one tape player which gets used only when the radio refuses to play decent music. And now we have a Wii, which supposedly will save us from complete devotion to re-runs of LAW AND ORDER and its off-shoots (it hasn't).

The Wii is a strange bird. It has a somewhat dictatorial format and often scolds its user for lack of improvement or performance and laxness in exercise (It's been 45 days since you have been on Wii Fitness). We started with Wii Sports because of its promise of becoming proficient in bowling, boxing, tennis, baseball, golf, etc., all in the privacy of your own den.

I admit that I enjoy the bowling and tennis and have made small improvements. As for baseball, the system seems rigged against the batter and for the pitcher. Surely few real pitchers get that many strike-outs. I always enjoyed actual tennis, particularly doubles (less responsibility) and found it a socialble activity, if you didn't take it too seriously. On the Wii Sports version, you can play with others but it's still virtual and you still have an avatar. You create your own avatar and can even give him or her facial features; in my case, gray hair, a scruffy beard, and a scowl. When playing competively, you are often reminded of your inadequacies. Often, the game ends with my avatar bending toward the ground in shame, as the narrator intones "You Lost." Then you are shown how you rank against your kids, wife, and grandkids, which only adds to the humiliation.

My two older grandsons from California recently spent a week with us, or should I say, our Wii. Their expertise on every game and on Wii Fitness was astounding. So now when I play a game, I am reminded that my grandsons have scores that triple mine. More humiliation, but what the heck, Wii is still a great deal of fun, and on really hot days (May-September) in Georgia, you can actually get some exercise and fun.

But what's with those little people with no lower bodies who look like warped bobble creatures. And why can't my partner in tennis ever hit one back while the opposing team is a team. Ah, more exercise for you, Gramps.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

ONE DAY, a modern love story

I receive a lot of my reading recommendations from my daughters, and last year one of them raved about a novel in which two opposites manage to sustain some sort of relationship by seeing each other every year on the same day. Yikes, I was suddenly thrust into the distant past in which a Harvard preppie falls for an outspoken and much smarter Italian scholarship student. So, I hesitated, since LOVE STORY had been one of the worst novels I had ever read; even the movie was better.

But when I did read David Nicholls' ONE DAY I loved it. Its witty conceit of a couple not quite being a couple for 20 years works. The dialogue had a delightful reality and the author catalogued the changes in British culture in the last two decades. Even more, there were believable characters who grew or fell in stature and whom you cared about. When a contemporary novel can achieve these feats, we get nervous when the film comes out. Yes, a film is not a novel; it's a different medium, a visual medium. But the best adaptations (see my review of THE HELP) keep the heart and spirit of the original. ONE DAY is no exception.

The American actress Anne Hathaway (THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA) plays Emma, an aspiring writer who enjoys her Oxford graduation night with a privileged playboy named Dexter(Jim Sturgess). Something clicks, and each St. Swithin's day they meet and catch up on each other's lives. At first Dexter is giddily successful as a flashy telly host for mindless music shows while Emma struggles to find her place. However, as Dexter's fortunes fall (his mother's death, loss of job, divorce, and addictions), Emma becomes a teacher and publishes successfully. Some of their meetings are fraught with longing, and others with loathing. But their need for each other never abates. All of this sounds heavy, but the film's clever structure and pacing (the author adapted his own novel), and its smart direction keep it from ever being maudlin (aka, LOVE STORY and its ilk). Hathaway grows from an awkward overchiever into a lovely, caring adult in a fine performance. Sturgess bravely shows Dexter's immaturity and even cruelty, but he is also poignantly real when he suffers. The supporting cast shines, particularly the elegant Patricia Clarkson as Dexter's long-suffering mother.

Directed by Lone Sherfig, who gave us the droll AN EDUCATION, ONE DAY succeeds on many levels. Not only is it a touching love story but it is also an examination of the bonds of friendship in a modern, distracting world, a world that discourages romantic love.

Monday, August 15, 2011

THE HELP, a movie that lives up to the book

By now almost everyone knows the success story of Kathryn Stockett's best seller THE HELP. This heartfelt, well-plotted novel spread by word of mouth and loving reviews, but no one could have predicted that a story about black maids and their white female employers in Mississippi during the birth of the civil rights movement could touch such a national nerve. But, almost immediately, some hostility surfaced on the left and among black critics. How could a white person understand and portray the emotions of black people? Do we ask how Tolstoy and Stendhal understood their doomed heroines? Or how the many great female authors made men live in their pages?

Similar nay-sayers have objected to the film version that opened last week. They have also suggested that the film is a bit too rosy for such a socially dramatic time. After all, how can a movie be taken seriously when the audience breaks into laughter on a regular basis? Tate Taylor's adaptation (co-writer and director) of THE HELP manages to answers these objections with serious drama and human comedy. The story centers on Skeeter Phelen(Emma Stone), an Ole Miss grad who wants a writing career instead of an immediate wedding. When she returns to Jackson, she begins to notice in a new way the maids in the well kept homes of her Junior League friends. Her friends discuss the "Negro problem" openly as their maids wait on them or debate whether a maid should be allowed to use the indoor bathrooms. As she becomes torn between her old friends and her new interest in the plight of the maids, the conflict grows to a boil. Secretly, Skeeter sets up a series of interviews with the two other major characters, Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) and eventually twelve other maids. One might expect that their tales would all be negative, but there are many stories of love and family, especially from those who raised the white children. This seems to be the crux of the film. Ironically, these children grow up to be like their spoiled mothers, and the culture of repression triumphs.

All this sounds too serious for a summer movie, right? Director Taylor infuses the film with rich, often earthy humorous set pieces, the major one centering on a special pie cooked by Minny. The serious tone of THE HELP is achieved primarily through a superb cast. Jessica Chastain creates a memorable Celia Foote, an insecure blonde bombshell who learns how to cook and to live because of her maid Minny. Octavia Spencer gives Minny a warmth and zest for living that she didn't seem to have in the novel, and Viola Davis invests Aibileen with such fierce devotion and love that she, and probably Spencer and Foote, will be Oscar nominees.

THE HELP manages to be the most entertaining yet most serious movie of the summer.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Best Action Flick of the Year! No, it's not a superhero.

We've been bombarded by superheroes this year--Thor, Green Lantern, X-Men, Captain America, and even Daniel Craig fighting Aliens, but none of these compares with the best action movie in some time--RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Yes, I'm talking about the prequel and/or reboot of the somewhat musty franchise that started with a loin-clothed Charlton Heston captured by civilized apes. Well, we know how that turned out.

But this one IS actually different and much more inventive. For starters, it has a strong, emotionally involving story that leads to the terrific action sequences that dominate the second half of the film. The engaging and believable James Franco plays a brilliant scientist hell-bent on discovering a cure for Altzheimer's Disease. His beloved father is quickly degenerating before his eyes. When Franco brings home a new-born chimp who carries the intelligence-producing drug, he injects his father (a moving John Lithgow) with the serum. Not only does Dad improve he becomes brilliant and starts playing piano like Lang Lang. Skip a few years, Dad is still great and Caesar is getting bigger and more dangerous; after all he's a teenager.

I won't give too much away, but this emotional beginning leads to a slam-bang series of suspenseful, hair-raising set pieces wherein Caesar becomes the leader of an ape rebellion. Sounds ridiculous? Driven by superb editing and photography, the apes (all digitally rendered but highly realistic) perform amazing human pet tricks such as a home grown political organization and escape from labs and zoos, all led by the shrewd Caesar. The technical expertise that enables every movement, every grimace is so seamless that, for once, it all seems real, not photo-shopped. Dare I say it? I went ape for this movie!

Monday, August 8, 2011

What's in a song?

Recording artists and wanna-be artists reach a point in their careers when they decide to tackle what's broadly called "The American Songbook." That is a genre or group of songs that seems to take off in the late 1920's with Broadway reviews, grew in the 1930's with Broadway and film scores, and reached its climax and ultimate decline with great interpreters like Sinatra, Ella, Nat King Cole, and other fine singers. But this was the era of change and rock and roll was poised to take over. A few classic songs were on the charts--"Unforgettable," one of the last songs with meaningful lyrics and beautiful styling, and re-makes of classics such as "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, this time by the Platters. But there was a new King named Presley, not Cole or Sinatra, and in the next decade, the Beatles would assume the mantle. With our splintering popular taste there would never be another King or Queen of popular music. Lo, these many years later, pop music and idols have regressed to such lows that "lyrics" and singers are interchangealbe, and amazingly, dully the same. Singers like Willie Nelson and Barry Manilow have dipped into the American Songbook with varying success. Perhaps the nadir of this trend can be found in Rod Stewart's popular series "The Great American Songbook." One benefit of Stewart's gutting is a renewed interest in the songs themselves. People are discovering that they can be sung better, much better. MORE LATER.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The World According to the Tea Partiers and The View

Some time ago, I scoffed at the possible influence of a bunch of elderly, middle-aged, often over-weight Americans wearing faux 18th Century costumes and waving American flags. They carried ridiculous signs declaring that granny was being shipped to a home or even worse, thanks to our monstrously over-extended Godzilla of a government. Their major theme was the gross indignity of having to pay taxes for government services. I wanted to ask if they were so independent that they wanted no repairs to roads, no traffic lights, no national parks, no free admissions to the National Gallery...well, you get my drift. My favorite moment in their diatribes came when one silly woman screamed, "Don't touch my social security!" These Tea Partiers had the timidity to compare themselves to the "patriots" who protested the English Tea Tax in 1773. But, I was so wrong, as can be evidenced by cowardly crumbling of the Republican Party, especially in the House.

Its slick and over-tanned chief negotiator, John Boehner almost convinced us and his party that he was working well with President Obama to come up with a reasonable debt-ceiling deal. We know how that worked out and we know why. For some inexplicable reason, the Tea Party has managed to bring the House to a stand-still. This next of vipers has dumped Boehner and followed an even bigger slime-ball, Eric Cantor. All of this would be amusing if it were not so dangerous to millions of people who don't have proper housing, jobs, health care, and lives. The next year will be more than interesting. It will be a battle between rational thinking and extreme reactionism. I shudder to think what may happen.

Another note of silliness and pessimism. Several days a week I go to my re-hab center and walk on the treadmill. I take my ear buds and a book, but I am still accosted by a group of five out-spoken women who seem to have an opinion on everything from Obama to who's sleeping with who and how much alimony is not being paid to the rich trophy wife. Yes, my treadmill faces two television sets, both showing ABC's THE VIEW, a hot air bonanza featuring former actress Whoopi Goldberg, former journalist Barbara Walters, talk show host Joy Behar (the best of the group, not necessarily a good thing), Elisabeth Hasselbeck (resident blonde), and Sherri Shepherd who seems to be there to fill up space.

With leaders like McConnell, Boehner, Cantor, Sen. Paul, and commentators like the gals on The View, we are drawn further and further into a quagmire of misinformation and rascals. Where is Mark Twain when we need him?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Movies and Music

I have always loved music, especially classical music and movie music, and I have always loved movies, almost every kind. Oddly enough, I have occasionally discovered musical treasures through movies. After recovering from extreme shock and fear from ALIEN's multiple scares, I was lulled into recovery by some ethereal music that just didn't seem to match the rest of the score. Of course, it didn't hurt that a lithesome and sexy Sigourney Weaver was stripping for her pod escape. But somehow I missed the name of the composer as the credits rolled. A few years later, as I was driving home from Atlanta, I heard the ALIEN music on NPR. I almost swerved off the road. It wasn't long before I had Howard Hanson's in my permanent collection. To further my addiction to this lush, almost hypnotic symphony, I used the film of ALIEN in my film class. Naturally the students loved ALIEN (many had already seen it), but introducing them more formally to Hanson's music was a great bonus for me and for them.

I also discovered another popular classical theme when I fell in love with EXCALIBUR, John Boorman's fantastical take on the Arturian legends. No, I'm not talking about Ricard Wagner's operatic takes on Germanic legends; they are hardly subtle, though beautifully evocative of mood and narrative. No, I'm talking about the famous scene in which Arthur leaves Camelot to restore THE LAND! As he and his shining knights rode through the barren countryside, a rousing chant accompanied them and branches began sprouting blooms. The scene ends in an orgiastic explosion of white petals slashed by Arthur's red banners. Like everything else in EXCALIBUR (particularly Helen Mirren as Morgan le Fay), the scene is over the top, and Carl Orff's Carmina Burana is the perfect accompaniment for such delightful excess. Again, I used said film in my film class but also put it to good use in my Humanities class where we could compare Wagner, Orff, and Pre-Raphaelite art. Since EXCALIBUR debuted, Orff's short and blustery music has dominateeved action movie previews and become almost a sad cliche.

The last example is the most obvious. It may be hard to believe, but in 1967 I had never heard Ricard Strauss' Thus Sprach Zarathustra, the awe-inspiring music used at major moments of discovery in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. This is a short series of long chords that build in majesty and finish with a lingering organ echo. Since that time, this particular theme has become the most cliched classical theme of all, out-performing even Tchaikovsky's love theme from Romeo and Juliet. TV commercials and movies the world over still love to use this theme, usually in a mocking way. But in Kubrick's world of space exploration and inner discovery, it couldn't have been more original.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

All grown up with facial hair and tears to prove it

At long last, J.K. Rowling's epic saga of a cute little fellow with the odd birthmark and even odder glasses has reached its end. The reading and viewing worlds owe an amazing debt to the author who turned on kids to almost addictive reading and movie-goers to a superb series of movies based on the books.

The last film, Part II of HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, is one of the finest of the group, despite its being weighted by the daunting task of bringing back so many of the fine characters and character actors for a last hurrah as well as tying up all the loose ends. But essentially it all boils down to one major climax--Harry's last face-off with his dreaded enemy Lord Voldemort. Ralph Fiennes' embodiment of pure, slithering, soulless evil almost dominates the film, though he is closely followed by a harrowing performance by Alan Rickman as the ambiguously cold Professor Snape. Watching Rickman and Fiennes is akin to seeing the best in the world in any field. They are that good!

And the film almost matches them. It has stunning effects, gorgeous music, and a moving story. And what most people want to see is the fate of the three protagonists Harry Potter, Hermoine Granger, and Ron Wesley. When these roles were cast over a decade ago, the actors Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint were green kids with more charm than ability, but by the third film, they were becoming their characters, and in the last two films they have a gravity that makes them real people and adults. So it is with some sadness that we watch them leave the world of magic for the world of reality, the one we have to face on a daily basis. Perhaps that is the major reason the series has been so popular with adults as well as youngsters. It is more than escapism that fuels such success, more than special effects. Our strong need for the verification of good triumphing over relentless, soulless evil can't be easily found in the world we see on the news, but it still exists. Often it has its fulfillment in art. The Harry Potter phenomenon is a great example of a populist desire for a better life.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

OF GODS AND MEN....A testament to faith and courage

The Cannes Film festival award winner OF GODS AND MEN has just been released on DVD. In a time when the multiplexes and pay for view channels are flooded with alien invasions, super heroes, and raunchy buddy comedies, this French drama, based closely on historical fact, is a poignant reminder that there are always serious topics that can be dramatized and be entertaining and thought-provoking. Directed and co-written by Xavier Beauvois, the film chronicles the excruciating decisions made by French Catholic priests during a time of political upheaval and terrorism in Algeria. Nine Trappist monks who have lived in harmony with the poor and sick Muslims near their monastery are quickly pulled into the political conflict between the Algerian government and a radical Islamist terrorist group. As the violence around them escalates, they must decide whether to leave for France or stay and face possible death.

The outcome is no surprise. What is surprising and enriching is the depiction of the monks' devotion to rituals, the local populace, and to each other. Photographed with almost religious artistry, OF GODS AND MEN shows the daily life of the monastery, especially the monks' beautiful chants during services. When it becomes apparent that their lives are endangered by both the terrorists and the fanatical army leaders, they must decide whether to leave or to stay and support the villagers. Eventually seven of them are kidnapped and martyred.

This short plot outline does not begin to do justice to the subtleties of this film. All of the actors embue their characters with warmth, love, and fear. To their leader, played with dignity and feeling by Lambert Wilson, falls the onerous duty of guiding and protecting his brothers. As their fate becomes imminent, their love for God and each other grows. And so does our deep respect for their faith and courage.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Freedom for you and me, but what about them?

This is the day we are supposed to think about and treasure our freedoms in America. Being born in the U.S.A. is not a given nor a right but an accident of time and place. Being citizens goes beyond having the freedom to be as stupid as the motorcylist who died several days ago protesting motorcyle helmets. Yes, he gets the latest Darwin award for amazing foolishness in not wearing his helmet, but it was his right, or so he believed, to forego practical and legal prohibitions.

Millions like him believe that our forefathers wanted us to be free to do whatever we wanted in and with our lives. So, with this abundant freedom, we can blog our opinions, fire off nasty notes and photos on line and on twitter, buy our children video games that feature disembowlment and torture (often of women), smoke despite every warning imaginable (seen those new pack designs?), do all sorts of drugs and therefore ramp up the drug cartel violence in Mexico, or choose to believe that all these really don't matter to the vast majority of free Americans.

But they do matter. We are not as free as many want to be or think they are, and that is probably a good thing. I am glad there are speed limits, traffic lights, checks and balances in our various governments (I just wish they worked better). I am happy to pay my share of taxes for the benefits that I and other Americans receive and need. Unlike some congressional leaders, I appreciate Medicare, Social Security, and ObamaCare. I also believe that there should be limits on how corporations make obscene profits while disregarding nature and most people.

What this short diatribe comes down to is this: we as Americans are not just takers. We have to be participants in whatever ways we can--voting, volunteering, caring. That is the price of freedom

Sunday, June 26, 2011

If you loved E.T. and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS......

In 1977, Steven Spielberg challenged viewers with his epic vision of an alien visitation to an unsuspecting world. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND gave viewers not only spectacle but solid human drama and riveting suspense. The conclusion remains one of the most beautiful sequences in film history as the alien forms and humans interact, a magnificent made even better by John Williams' moving score and Spielberg's uncanny ability to combine superb editing with a magnificent visual pay-off.

Only five years later, the director (and Williams!) concocted one of the most popular films of all time: E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL. Again, combining human drama, cute but believable kids, and an irresistable alien who just wants to go home, Spielberg delivered a thrilling but sentimental sci-fi film bound to warm the hearts of all but the most cynical observer.

Obviously, the above comments don't do justice to Spielberg at his popular best, and neither did the many films that aped his approaches. Remember
GOONIES, GREMLINS, and other lesser attempts? Perhaps the best was the Spielberg-produced POLTERGEIST, which wasn't about aliens at all. Instead this comic fright-fest pitted a charming but flawed modern family (the parents smoke pot!) against the lively energies in their home, which just happens to be built above a former cemetary ("You moved the cemetary, but you left the bodies!").

Well, if you have seen the new Spielberg production SUPER 8, then perhaps many of the above films and themes popped into your memory. Again, we have the incomplete family (E.T., CLOSE ENCOUNTERS). This time the mother has been killed in a factory accident, the father is struggling deputy sherrif, and the only child(Joel Courtney) lives in a dream world of models, monsters, and movies. And...SPOILER ALERT...there's an alien who wants to go home and a big cover-up by Spielberg's favorite villain the U.S. military. Yes, it is all familiar, but this concoction is far more enjoyable than the plot suggests.

For starters, J.J. Abrams, the mastermind behind LOST and ALIAS, has given fresh life to Spielberg's themes, primarily with a sympathetic cast of kids and adults. As in E.T., the kids are left to their own devices, particularly a Super 8 camera which they are using to film a zombie movie.
They create, bicker, apply make-up and fall in love with the leading lady, beautifully played by Elle Fanning. While filming a key scene they witness an incredible train wreck and strange after-effects, captured on film! But enough plot. What makes SUPER 8 work so well is the use of period details( this time late 1970's), a technique Spielberg is famous for. Although the suspenseful and somewhat overly sentimental ending doesn't quite work, SUPER 8 is by far the best "big" movie of the summer.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Take a second look or listen

Last week my wife and I saw Woody Allen's new nostalgic comedy MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, a frothy tribute to the city of love and lights. With nods to some of his earlier films, Allen sets up the eternal debate between genuine feeling and philistine grabbing. Owen Wilson, embodying Allen's persona, plays Gil, a successful but unhappy screen-writer, who has come to Paris with his spoiled fiance (Rachel McAdams in a bravely unsympathetic mode) and her obnoxious parents. This plot is simple: she wants to go home to Hollywood and he wants to write in Paris. It's the second story that makes the movie special.

To escape his smothering future family, Gil takes midnight walks in the streets of Paris where he is picked up by a limo from the 1920's and whisked into the artistic world of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein. Along the way, he falls in love with the entrancing Adriane (Marion Cotillard, gulp, can you blame him?) These scenes give Allen a chance to comment on nostalgia for a time often overly romanticized, especially by writers and film. He manages to expose Hemingway as a drunken lecher, and even worse, a writer trapped by his own machismo style. As Hemingway speaks to Gil, he intones some of the stripped, blunt language that was his pride but also his curse as a writer. As for Fitzgerald, he is seen as an attractive and shallow weakling, as is his wife Zelda. And Allen goes further, revealing Pablo Picasso as a preening but unsure cock of the roost.

All of this made me reconsider the talents of 1920's Paris. Have they been over-rated by historians and even art historians (hmm)? How many people read Gertrude Stein and her almost nonsensical prose? Did Picasso really "invent" Cubism? Do we forget about Cezanne's incredible spatial and color inventions of thirty years before or Picasso's co-worker Georges Braque's intricate analytical cubist pieces and his clever synthetic collages? Yes, Picasso gave us THE WOMEN OF AVIGNON and GUERNICA, which are brilliant and shocking works, but of all the artists embodied in Allen's film, Henri Matisse and Fitzgerald come off best in the real world. THE GREAT GATSBY and many of his stories remain some of the finest, most sensitive writing of the 20th Century, much more readable than almost anything by Hemingway. Matisse with his vivid colors, his radical arrangements in painting as well as in sculpture and cut-out collages, which he virtually made an art form, are more interesting and aesthetically pleasing than almost any work by Picasso.

Though Woody Allen purports to love the past as seen in 1920's Paris, he is also realistic about the snares of nostalgia. If Gil stays in Paris, it won't be in the 1920's.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Still the Best

We just finished watching the London 25th anniversary of the musical LES MISERABLES on PBS. This is a magnificent concert production with a huge orchestra and chorus and thousands of die-hard LES MIZ fans in attendance. Although the intimacy of the London or New York productions is dwarfed, the concert provides stunning clarity of voice, diction, and emotion. Don't miss it. I am sure PBS in their search for donors will show it many times; that's what pledge breaks are for.

Seeing this concert brought me back to my first experience of LES MISERABLES in the spring of l989. I led our sixth annual Humanities Class trip to New York where we took in the arts and theater. Our first play was the recently opened smash THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA with its soaring melodies and incredible sets. The students were swept away, particularly the girls, by the romance and spectacle.

The next night, feeling PHANTOM was the pinnacle of Broadway musicals, we trooped into LES MISERABLES without much expectation. By the end of Act I as the barricades were erected with smoke, fire, emotion, and great music, I could tell that the students were in awe, especially the boys this time. Maybe it was the swaggering machismo of the young revolutionaries, but perhaps it was also the sweep of Hugo's themes and the extraordinary music that lifted them. As Act II progressed, the deaths and sacrifices began to change the tone. At the death of Eponine in Marius's arms and the defeat of the students, the emotions of the audience rose. And in the finale, as Jean Val Jean dies in the company of his daughter Cosette, Marius, his son-in-law, and the spirits of Cosette's mother Fantine and Eponine, the scene takes on the qualities of great operatic ensembles, lifted by the show's major theme "One Day More," sung by the entire company. As the lights came up, I looked around at my group. Like me, most of them were in tears, even some of the athletes, who never dreamed they would respond to a show like this.

If anything sums up the power of the musical LES MISERABLES, it is this: it speaks to our sense of beauty, justic, and love in terms few popular entertainments could possibly envision.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Incredible Sunshine of Charlie Kaufman's Mind

Screen-writer Charlie Kaufman won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the 2004 film ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. It was his third nomination in a short time span. Rarely has such an original voice been heard in Hollywood films. Kaufman's first nominated film was 1999'S BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, a trippy comedy about a dweeb (John Cusack)who discovers a wormhole into the brain of one of our finest but perhaps oddest actors. Along for the wild ride are Cameron Diaz, the hilarious Catherine Keener, and Malkovich playing himself to the hilt. The film, like most of Kaufman's work, has the feeling of Lewis Carroll's ALICE IN WONDERLAND, where a character is swept into wild adventures beyond his control. A bizzare, laughable concept becomes one of the most delightful comedies in the last twenty years.

ADAPTATION, 2002, is another strange concept. Based on Susan Orlean's book THE ORCHID THIEF, the film stars Nicolas Cage as screen writer Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother Donald. Charlie has hit a writer's block in trying to adapt Orlean's book to the screen, and his brother, a hack writer, jumps into the breach. Donald interviews Susan (played with wild comic gusto by Meryl Streep), but doesn't quite believe her story. So the brothers follow her to the Florida swamp where the orchid thief(Chris Cooper, hysterical) lives. What follows is one of the most hilarious and suspenseful endings a movie could have, and it owes much to the real Kaufman's witty imagination and the actors who play it straight making ADAPTATION a heady comic mix.

It is difficult to choose which of the three original films by Kaufman that I like best, but ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND seems to have more pathos, heart, and internal logic than the others. It tells the story of Joel(Jim Carrey in a wonderfully expressive performance), a repressed, lonely young man, who meets an unstable free spirit Clementine, played by Kate Winslet. After a final clash, Clem goes to a memory cleaning office and has all her memories of Josh erased. As Josh realizes what she has done, he decides it's too painful to live with her memories, and he follows suit. Naturally, things go awry, and Kaufman's ingenious plotting, director Michel Gondry's swift and unlinear cutting, and the performances of a delicious cast (Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson, Kristin Dunst, and Mark Ruffalo) make it that much more fun. Though the sci-fi or fantasy elements are fun, at heart it is the love story between two lonely people that is the glue that makes ETERNAL SUNSHINE a major work.

Here is the source of the title:

How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd.

From Alexander Pope's "Eloisa to Abelard,' in which the only saving grace of a doomed love affair is fading memory.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Winning Horse and Two Marriages on the Edge

Making movies based on historical events is tricky enough, but filming a suspenseful history story is really difficult, especially when it's a well-known sports event. Last year's SECRETARIAT is no exception. We already know that Big Red was the wonder horse who won the Grand Slam of racing back in 1972 and holds incredible records. This film tackles these challenges by sharing the focus with believable characters played by fine actors. Chief among these are Diane Lane as Penney Chenery, who takes over her father's horse farm after her mother's death and his being incapacitated, naturally against incredible odds (her family is in Denver, not, Virginia; she's a woman in a man's world; the farm is in serious financial trouble). Lane brings a caring warmth to the part that eventually turns to grit as she proves she can deal with the best of the men in the racing business. As her eccentric trainer, John Malkovich adds humor and grace to the proceedings. All the stereotypes of the sports film are here: impossible goals and odds, swelling music, gorgeous dawn and dusk shots of Virginia and Kentucky blue grass, a boatload of typical sidekicks. Plus, a gospel version of "Oh, Happy Day" keys up when inspiration is called for. Somehow it all works beautifully. SECRETARIAT is even better than SEABISCUIT, which attempted to be a story of national unity and personal redemption, filmed with such "importance" that it was hard to relate to. This is one horse who goes the distance.

Another more recent dvd edition is the Oscar-nominated BLUE VALENTINE, a somber and achingly sad examination of a couple falling apart. Acted with unspairing and often painfully real power by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, the film freely moves in time to show the highs and lows of the couple's relationship. He is a high school drop-out who moves furniture and she a pre-med student when they meet. By the time they break up, they have a loving daughter, she has a career, and he is the same boy he was when they met. Gosling has a great ability to exhibit natural charm, incendiary fury, and heartfelt regret. And Phillips never makes a false emotional note. If you can take this one, it's worth it. A suitable companion piece is the emotional drama RABBIT HOLE starring Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, and Dianne Wiest. It is a stark portrayal of a marriage on the edge after the accidental death of their four year old son. All of the actors bring strong conviction to their roles, and an intelligent script and smart direction make this worth watching. CAUTION: Don't watch these two together!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Weddings and such

The hoopla has faded and the happy pair has flown off to nestle in obscurity before Kate really becomes the target of cameras again. Some spent last week sneering at the pomp and ceremony and citing the many crises that have befallen the world this year. An article in UTNE Magazine dismissed the royal wedding as the pinnacle of anglophilia and pointed out the myriad tacky souvenirs flooding the market as well as the stained history of the current royal family.

But such carping does little to deflate one of the loveliest days I have ever seen on television. We fortunately chose the PBS coverage (via BBC) and let the dvr work while we slept. At nine we toasted our English muffins and brewed our coffee (sorry, no tea for breakfast) and settled down with a neighbor to wallow in everything royal--the luxury limos, thousands of fluttering union jacks, bad hats (Fergie's daughters!!), Camilla actually looking happy, trees growing in Westminster Abbey, and Kate and William! And did we mention her dress? No, but everybody else did, and even Joan Rivers and the Fashion Police loved it.

Yes, lowly peons and high-placed nobles alike, most of us reveled in the royalty. So, to the block for anglophobes everywhere!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sidney Lumet and the Art of Being Relevant

Sidney Lumet, a director of stage, tv, and especially film, died recently at the age of 86. He never made a TRANSFORMERS movie or dealt with terminators, aliens, or hobbits. Instead he explored life in cities, especially New York, life that invigorates, pushes, demoralizes, and kills. But Lumet infused his work with realism and occasionally sharp satire. He was especially interested in police corruption as seen in two of his best films: SERPICO(1973) with Al Pacino and PRINCE OF THE CITY(1981). Although he never won an Oscar as Best Director, he drew bravura performances from individual actors and group ensembles as well. Lumet could plumb the depths of Eugene O'Neill's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT(1962) with its harrowing portrait of the ultimate dysfunctional family as seen in the ravaged faces of Katherine Hepburn, Jason Robards, Jr. and Ralph Richardson. Or he could foresee the effects of the coming women's movements in his version of THE GROUP(1996), an entertaining take on Mary McCarthy's acid-laced satire.

On individual terms, Lumet's most memorable films concentrated on society's losers or victims, which he showed with compassion and unaffected irony. His first film, TWELVE ANGRY MEN(1957), skewers in-bred prejudices, as Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb brilliantly battle over the fate of a falsely accused Hispanic. A personal favorite is the electric drama DOG DAY AFTERNOON(1975), in which Al Pacino gives his finest performance as a married bi-sexual caught in a botched bank job. His character wants to pay for a sex-change operation for his boy friend. A series of tragi-comical events makes the robbery a media circus. Lumet handles all of this chaos with a caring and judicious hand, balancing comedy with pathos. His next film would be his most controversial and also one of his best: NETWORK. Perhaps the sharpest satirical comedy since DR. STRANGELOVE, this scathing comic drama seems even more prescient today than when it came out. Peter Finch won a posthumous Oscar as the demented news anchor Howard Beale whose rant became part of the national discourse: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" He was matched with equally voracious and gutsy performances from Faye Dunaway (Oscar) as a career obsessed producer and William Holden (Oscar nominee) as her lover and victim. The film touches on racial unrest, world corporation control, and the decline of the media as a purveyor of facts, not propaganda. Nominated for Best Film of 1975, NETWORK lost to ROCKY, a bit of sentimental populist pap. But as the years advance, Lumet's reputation only grows in stature, and the directors of many "Best Films" are forgotten.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Matthew and Jake Are Back on Track

CONFESSION: I cannot stand Matthew McConaughey. He began well as a lawyer in A TIME TO KILL, based on John Grisham's novel, giving an intense performance that lacked the vanity of his later efforts. But the rest of his career has been spent playing shirtless slackers opposite the likes of Kate Hudson. With that said, I still enjoyed the courtroom mystery of THE LINCOLN LAWYER, in which he plays (surprise) a somewhat sleazy LA lawyer whose office is a creaky, chauffer-driven Lincoln town car. Sometimes he's smart, but sometimes he's not, putting his desires ahead of his needs. He takes on the case of a rich playboy, played with steely cold by Ryan Phillippe, who's accused of rape and battery. But as a famed Dane once said, something is rotten in this case, which takes McConaughey into the darker regions of LA low life. Marisa Tomeii plays his ex-wife, who can't quite cut the strings. The film has the noir feeling of Raymond Chandler and does not disappoint.

FINALLY BACK TO FORM: When Jake Gyllenhaal popped on the scene in films like the inspiring OCTOBER SKY (1999) and the truly strange and creepily appealing DONNIE DARKO (2001), he began a promising career that led to strong performances in ZODIAC and especially the ground-breaking BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005) opposite the late Heath Ledger. But his last two films have been major duds in which he was miscast as a medival hunk saving the day in PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME, an effects-laden swashbuckler in which he was all but lost. The other was even worse: the deplorable LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS in which he played a swinging Viagra salesman who falls for a feisty Parkinsons patient, embodied by an annoyingly perky Anne Hathaway. Naked or not, this unfortunate combo was in the poorest taste that tried to combine frat boy humor (Jake's slovenly gross brother--why is there always one of these slobs in movies today?), a serious disease, and even an orgy.

SO it is a pleasure that Gyllenhaal has bounced back in the new sci-fi thriller SOURCE CODE, in which he gets to bounce forward eight minutes in time in order to find a bomber hell-bent on blowing up Chicago. The film is smart, fast, and fun, even though it has some serious questions about terrorism and mind control. And Gyllenhaal delivers a nuanced performance that expresses charm, fear, and control.

It may be too late for McCounaghey, but Gyllenhaal has a chance of being a major leading man, depending on his film choices and the fickle taste of his public.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Last of the Legends

When I was a young teen, my brother and I shared an upstairs bedroom across from the attic. My side, often delineated by a chalk border, had its share of funny angles because of the roof's steep inclines. So, before I turned out the lights at night, I would look up at a bevy of Hollywood beauties--Ava Gardner, Marilyn, but especially Liz. Liz in a white slip-like garment, Liz in a tightly bodiced white gown in a shot from ELEPHANT WALK, and Liz in close-up with that amazing skin, those mesmerizing violet eyes, those smoldering lips. Yes, I was hooked. In 1953 I would take the bus down town, buy a bunch of Krystals, and take my seat of worship at the Strand Theater to watch a melodramatic pot boiler called ELEPHANT WALK. Liz played an innocent English girl who marries a rich plantation owner from Ceylon. In an obvious rip-off of REBECCA, Liz is haunted by the spell of her husband's domineering father who deliberately built his mansion across a traditional elephant path to water. By the end of the film, a love triangle has heated up and the elephants are on the war path. Naturally Liz is alone in the house in that little white dress as the elephants storm through. I sat through this movie five successive weekends.

Such was the power of Elizabeth Taylor for me as a teen, but it grew, along with my awareness that she could do a lot better than ELEPHANT WALK. And she already had, especially in one of her best films, George Stevens' classic social/romantic drama A PLACE IN THE SUN, based on Theodore Drieser's AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY. Taylor plays a wealthy capitalist princess who falls in love with a distant relative who works in her father's factory. Their love is doomed because he has made another worker pregnant and is eventually accused of her drowning death. Montgomery Clift plays George Eastman and the love scenes between Taylor and Clift are among the most memorable in movie history, especially their sudden realization of passion in the middle of a crowded dance floor. Angela Vickers pulls George out to the patio, and Stevens' camera frames them as closely as possible, their gorgeous features filling the screen.

As Angela offers to see George after work each day, she coos, "you'll be my pick up."
George: "I am the happiest person in the world."
Angela: "The second happiest."
George: (filled with guilt and repression) "Oh, Angela, if I could only tell you how much I love you. If I could only tell you all.."
Angela: (comforting him with a breath-taking closeness, pulling him into her as the camera swoops in) "Tell Mama. Tell Mama, All." FADE OUT.

Elizabeth Taylor, who died this week at the age of 79, managed to pull that special magic in many other movies, with many men in her personal life, and with her public. Yes, she made some truly terrible movies. THE SANDPIPER, 1965, features Taylor as a free spirit living at Big Sur and seducing a doubting Episcopal priest to the tune of "The Windmills of Your Mind." And it gets much, much worse (or better, depending on what you are into). But the next year she won her second Oscar as Martha, the foul-mouthed harpy in Edward Albee's scathing drama WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF. Mike Nichols' direction of Taylor and Richard Burton as her husband was brilliant as were the performances of the cast. Playing radically against type and adding weight and age, Taylor transformed herself into Martha, giving heart-rending, often hilarious pathos to the character.

Taylor's "private" life was always more news than her movies, but to see her worth as an actress one needs to look back at her Maggie in Tennessee Williams' CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF or her face-off with Katherine Hepburn in the sinister SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER to know that beauty is not her only asset. Her innocent but compelling early beauty in films like FATHER OF THE BRIDE and especially IVANHOE, in which she bewitched both Robert Taylor and George Sanders, show not only her beauty but her humanity.

As the post-mortems pile up, they emphasize Taylor's lust for life, her husbands, her medical traumas, and her beauty. They haven't caught the full life. Elizabeth Taylor was too much for such a paltry pigeon hole. She was Elizabeth Taylor and she knew it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

When movies make a difference

No one can argue that movies are made to entertain and to make money. Often the latter goal cancels out the former. Just look at some the dreadfully bloated or uninspired movies of recent days. THE TOURIST promises fireworks between Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, but the movie is a boring dud, unlike its inspiration, the sparkling Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn comic romantic thriller CHARADE.

We know that entertaining films can be thoughtful and even change opinions, even lives. Consider the big Oscar winner THE KING'S SPEECH, a small tale of courage and an unusual friendship. Or Spielberg's moving SCHINDLER'S LIST, a movie that put the Holocaust in the spotlight for new generations as well as old. Very few viewers were able to maintain a blase cool while watching the horrors and heroism depicted in stark black and white with John Williams' magnificent score illuminating the darkness.

I have been thinking back over some of the films I used in my Cinema and English classes over the years. Obviously, films like PAN'S LABYRINTH, CHILDREN OF MEN, and THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI are films that have important messages that are conveyed with imagination and power. I can honestly say that in each of these films I found ideas of profound depth about war, despotism, loyalty, and love.

But these are obvious choices. I want to go back to several films that changed my attitude or reminded me of what I had forgotten about life. The first is the Bette Davis classic weeper NOW, VOYAGER, in which a repressed young woman suffers a breakdown at the hands of her domineering mother. After her recovery, she makes a life for herself and finally faces her mother's tyranny. The mother threatens to cut her out of her sizable will, but suddenly Charlotte Vale sits back and realizes "I'm not afraid any more." Naturally she has the aid of strings and a voice-over to back her up, but somehow this scene had a special resonance for me at a critical time, and I found myself repeating the same mantra: "I'm not afraid any more."

The other night I watched another Warner Brothers classic, KINGS' ROW, 1942, on Turner Classic Movies. Though filled with soap operatic flourishes, the film succeeds on the strength of its narrative drive and a magnificent ensemble cast. An idealistic Parris Mitchell lives in a lovely mid-western Victorian town, which naturally seethes with dark secrets such as child abuse and even incest. The town has two doctors, one a brilliant recluse and father of his first love, and the other, a sadistic quack who often performs unnecessary surgeries, including amputating the legs of Parris's best friend Drake McHugh (played by Ronald Reagan). The doctors are played by two of the best character actors in the Warner stable, Claude Rains and Charles Coburn. While Parris is learning psychotherapy in Vienna, Drake suffers a terrible accident, which causes him to need the services of his enemy, the surgery-happy doctor. Knowing that his daughter is madly in love with Drake, he ruthlessly cuts the young man's legs off. When Drake wakes up, he utters the film's and Reagan's most famous line: "Where's the rest of me?!"(personal caveat: I've always wondered that as well) Parris proves to be the best possible friend and helps Drake and his wife with financial and psychological support. In the climactic scene Parris forces Drake to face the truth that his surgery was an act of malice, not real medicine. At this moment, the film approaches a fundamental truth that also has meaning for me. One has to accept the reality of his situation and either give up or move on in life, despite the difficulties.

In both NOW, VOYAGER and KINGS ROW, dramatic situations illustrate well-known maxims about life, ones we know but forget. They may seem melodramatic but they have a reality that rings true for all of us. And that's a lot more than most movies offer today.

Monday, March 7, 2011

RANGO rings them in...UNKNOWN, almost

In the rather empty theaters following the rush of good films competing for Oscars, there hasn't been much of worth to watch. Several weeks ago we saw Liam Neeson facing off against amnesia, world hunger, and terrorism, with a lot of help from German beauty Dianne Krueger as a cab-crashing illegal. UNKNOWN is Neeson's follow-up to his surprise action thriller TAKEN from 2009 and follows its formula. A big, hard-hitting but quiet man goes ballistic when he or his are threatened. In TAKEN, his daughter was kidnapped by international nasties. And in UNKNOWN Neeson's memory is wiped out after his cab plunges into the river. The film features a shaky plot, something about curing hunger as a cover for terrorism, but it clips along quickly until it reaches its rather absurd conclusion. It's fun, but not particularly logical.

A definite step-up in quality is the new Matt Damon thriller THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, a trendy blend of old-time romance, chase, and science fiction. Fortunately, the romance triumphs over the rest. Damon convincingly plays a fiery senatorial candidate who falls over sexy and smart Emily Blunt. This doesn't conform to the PLAN of the Guardians (who may be angels but certainly believe in pre-destination).
According to their plans, Damon will eventually become president and change the course of history. Sounds too heavy? Don't worry, there are enough twists and turns and savvy dialogue to keep the philosophical jargon in check. And Damon and Blunt are dynamite together.

But the top choice in this group is the animated RANGO, which features the voice of Johnny Depp as a fast-talking lizard who gets trapped in the wild west and must save a town called Dirt. What follows is a series of clever allusions to classic westerns such as HIGH NOON (several shoot-outs in the dusty main street with no help in sight), THE SEARCHERS, and many others. But the biggest send-up is CHINATOWN, the classic noir directed by Roman Polanski, in which the nasty Noah Cross declares, "The man who controls the water for LA is the man who controls everything!"
As in CHINATOWN, the hoarding of city water for profit is the dirty secret in Dirt. Surrounded by an hilarious crowd of animated desert inhabitants, Rango acts as detective and hero in this clever, adult-tinged farce. See this one.

Friday, March 4, 2011


The recent Supreme Court decision allowing free speech for protesters such as the members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas has stirred a national firestorm. The Kansas congregation is famous (infamous) for their outrageous behavior at funerals of our servicemen.They carried signs saying "God Hates Our Soldiers" and "God hates Fags." Were they there to celebrate the lives of those who died for them and all Americans? No, they were there to protest gay rights. See the connection? Perhaps, there's a thin thread from the end of "Don't ask, don't tell" to protesting against gays at a serviceman's funeral, but it's tenuous, considering that the Westboro crowd also say that God hates not only "fags" but also Islam, Israel, and India, among many others.

Has the Supreme Court stretched the boundaries of the First Amendment beyond comprehension? Actually, not. After all, think where our country would be without the free speech of the founding fathers, Abe Lincoln, the leaders of the women's movement, Martin Luther King and so many other fighters for human rights, the gay rights movement and many, many more. And, yes, members of the Klan, corrupt politics, flag burners, the governor of Arizona, the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, and even members of this so-called church of God that claims to be speaking for God. Is my diatribe full of anger, sarcasm, and bias? You betcha! After all, I've got freedom of speech. And I know that the Court made the right decision, whether we like it or not.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Notes from Tinseltown

This is my third visit to California and second to LA, where my daughter and her family now live. After watching the Oscars on TV Sunday night, we headed down to Hollywood central and the Walk of Stars. We were quickly accosted by hawkers for Homes of the Stars at almost every step and amazingly Spiderman, Iron Man, and even Black Swan wanted to have their photos taken with us, for a price. Much of the street was closed off to allow the lackeys to dismantle the Oscar paraphanalia surrounding the Kodiak Theater. From the overlook by California Pizza, we took photos of the Hollywood sign miles in the distance, and then examined all the famed foot prints, hand prints, even hoof prints in concrete. Among them were those of R2-D2and C-3PO, the Marx Brothers, Bette Davis, and Shirley Temple. This was truly a walk of fame. The Walk of Stars was a disappointment. Yes, you could find Steve Martin or Bogart, but why were Billy Graham and many other non-Hollywood celebs included? Maybe I just answered my own question. Well, despite the fact that I know it's all hoopla business, Hollywood is still great fun to see....once.

Monday, February 14, 2011

When Pigs Fly.....

Not so long ago I would have sworn I would never do two things: watch the Super Bowl and watch The Grammys. Well, I caved. Though I am not a pigskin fan, I have children, sons-in-law, and grandchildren who are, and, like most of America, I like the ads and the half time show (always hoping for another fashion scandal?). This year did not disappoint: our team won, Darth Vader ruled the ads, and the show was fine. But all of this was minor compared to the surprises I found in The Grammys.

Thanks to the dvr, we were able to move through the music extravaganza quickly, letting most of the rappers drop and enduring only moments of the tackiest of the night, Rhianna. But the rest often rose to superior entertainment. The show kicked off with a diva-fest singing Aretha Franklin's greatest hits. All five were on target, but there was something a little funereal about this tribute. Of all the nominated artists, Lady Antebellum had the best night, both in awards and in performance. Their country-tinged, lovely harmonies, and their personal charm stole the show. And let's not forget the Muppets and Gwyneth Paltrow were able to tone down an X-rated song with a few substitutions and lots of fun.

Naturally or not, the unstoppable Lady Gaga arrived in an egg and delivered a smashingly choreographed number. But what really surprised us was the quality of the production numbers, even the ones we didn't like.

Who knew that a quiet tribute to Dolly Parton by the likes of Josh Groban and Nora Jones doing "Jolene" tenderly would be so touching?

And what a slam dunk highlight when Mick Jagger (no close-ups, please) hopped on the stage and boogied with the super electric Raphael Saadaq band.

To top it off, the true queen of mainstream American music, la Streisand, crooned her own Grammy winner "Evergreen," giving it all the chutzpah and multiple trills for one syllable..."Evah, ehhvahah green, greeahan." Barbara still has it and pointed out how empty and lyricless most of the rapper music was.

Friday, January 28, 2011

THE KING'S SPEECH: Why can't more movies be like this?

By now, most movie-goers have at least heard of director Tom Hooper's brilliant film The King's Speech, based on a literate and witty script by David Seidler. Believe every positive rave you have heard and double it. Among an unusually strong field of fine films up for Oscars this year, this one scores on every front. It has suspense without car chases or special effects (Inception), fiery face-offs without guns or fists (True Grit, The Fighter), dysfunctional families (Winter's Bone, The Fighter), without bizarre extremes and much more. No, it doesn't feature animated toys, a nutcase ballerina, or Mark Ruffalo as a sperm donor.

Instead The King's Speech tells the true story of a man with a debilitating stutter, a man who never dreamed nor hoped he would become king of England. Colin Firth's thoroughly human and vulnerable performance as George VI is one of the finest pieces of acting I have seen in a long time. And he is matched by Geoffrey Rush as his speech therapist, a man of talent and caring who uses humor, song and dance and other unorthodox methods to free the future king from his fear not only of his stutter but of his family and responsibilities. Their sessions are at first contentious but eventually they become friends, the king and the Australian commoner. This is the core of the film. Surrounding it are excellent character work by Helena Bonham and a score of English heavyweights. All of the major action takes place in the famous period when Edward VII renounces the throne for Mrs. Wallace Simpson, leading to George's coronation and his speech to the British people as they face Hitler and World War II. All these factors are headily emotional, and the director balances them with feeling and discretion, making them even more charged with feeling.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


The boxing movie is a tried and true but often tired genre. Over the years Hollywood has produced its fair share of good to great boxing dramas. In 1947, the explosive John Garfield, one of the first great method actors came out punching in Body and Soul, a slum to glory saga where Garfield fights his way to the crown while leaving his girl and family behind and embracing temptation and beautiful blondes. Only when he blinds an opponent, does he begin to realize the price of his success. It sounds like the usual hooey, but the director Robert Rossen (All the King's Men) knew how to make powerful melodramas, and this was one of his best.

Flash forward to 1975, and the genre gets a colorful reboot with Rocky, one of the most popular sports movies ever and also one of the worst Oscar Best Films beating the superior drama Network. Sylvester Stallone made Rocky a national hero, the underdog from the streets who goes all the way...at first with style...but then 4 sequels almost made him a joke. But in 1980 Martin Scorcese and Robert De Niro made the best boxing movie ever, the brutally realistic Raging Bull. Filmed in newsreel real black and white, the story of Jake DeMotto, charts the rise and fall of a sadistic, animalistic man who is vicious to his opponents, his friends and even his family. We first see De Niro in the title role telling jokes in a cheap club. He is bloated and slurs his words, a pathetic creature. Scorcese intercuts violent fight scenes with domestic violence, and both are difficult to watch. The strength of this film lies in its honest approach towards an unsavory real person. Like DeMotto's blows, this movie never holds back.

Naturally, there are many other boxing and sports movies worthy of mentioning, but now The Fighter walks into the ring. This is a boxing movie that has some of the tried and true cliches, but it also has an incredibly strong family dynamic to support it. Mark Wahlberg plays Irish-American welter-weight Micky Ward while Christian Bale (in his best role since he played the young lead in Spielberg's Empire of the Sun) is his older half brother. They are both trapped in one of the most dysfunctional families ever put on film. They have seven sisters who seem always to be at home and acting like some kind of perverted Greek chorus of harpies. Ruling the herd is the mother from hell, portrayed with terrifying and perverse strength by Melissa Leo, who made a strong impact in last year's Frozen River. And there is the usually sweet Amy Adams as Micky's feisty girl friend who must fight his family to save him. Yes, there are the requisite fight scenes, but they are secondary to the horrid family circus that Micky must escape. All of the performances are powerful and genuine, with Bale and Leo being the obvious "showboats." Directed by David O. Russell, whose Three Kings with Wahlberg and George Clooney was the only film that really spoke to the ill-fated Gulf War, The Fighter is the surprise entry in the year's best films.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


In 1956 John Wayne gave the finest performance of his career in John Ford's classic western The Searchers, a film that turned the typical Wayne oater on its head. Wayne played Ethan Edwards, a bitter, grizzled loner who returns to his brother's homestead after the Civil War. Within days he has buried his brother, nephew, and his sister-in-law after a savage Indian raid. Ethan and his nephew Martin begin a relentless search for the two daughters taken captive. As the search drags on and Ethan sees the remains of the older girl, his prejudice grows. Now he must find little Debbie, the youngest child. He is afraid that she has been taken as an Indian bride and swears that she would be better off dead. Wayne gives his character a brooding, almost unstable personality, ready to lash out at Martin or anyone who stands in his way. I won't spoil the outcome of the finest western in American film, but it is one of the most harrowing and moving you will ever see.

By 1969 Wayne's career was on its last legs and so was the western genre. Wayne signed on to play Rooster Cogburn, an aging, drunken lawmen with an eye-patch and a big gut, in the first film version of the novel True Grit by Charles Portis. The film was more a comic western than a true western, and Wayne played Cogburn broadly all the way to an Oscar for Best Actor. All of this Wayne history is obviously leading up to a review of the Coen Brothers' new version of True Grit, which follows the novel more closely, especially in the stilted, almost formal dialogue of the characters. The question of which film superior is an easy one to answer. The Coen Brothers have fashioned a tightly controlled, often humorous, and occasionally violent film that seems to have little connection to their earlier work. It lacks the zaniness of Raising Arizona or the black humor of Fargo or the grim hopelessness of their Oscar winner No Country for Old Men.

The original True Grit was entertaining but hardly that memorable. This film features wonderfully textured performances from the entire cast and especially from Jeff Bridges as Rooster and Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, the steely fourteen year old who is determined to avenge her father's murder. Steinfeld dominates the first half of the movie as she battles the legal system and sleazy businessmen in Fort Smith, Arkansas. She knows the law, finance, and how to cut a deal. And she leaves her opponents, including Rooster, shaking their heads. When she first encounters Rooster he is in an outhouse and wishes not to be disturbed. This doesn't stop Mattie, and neither does the gang Tom Chaney is running with in Indian territory. The second half of the film is devoted to the chase and a series of thrilling but not overly exaggerated action set pieces. Bridges looks much worse than Wayne did, always slurring his words, gulping more booze, but shooting straight most of the time. Together they make an endearing team, and the Coens have made their most irony-free, amusing film.