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.