Saturday, December 29, 2012


Please don't expect a bipartisan review of LES MISERABLES from me. First, I remember taking a group of Humanities students to see The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables with their original casts on Broadway. As they left Phantom, they were gushing with praise for the romantic story, music, and special effects (oh, that chandelier!). The next night, as Les Miz ended, not only the girls but also several football players trailed out of the theater in tears, most unable to express how they felt about the emotionally draining/elating closing. I was right there with them, sobbing away.

So when I read David Edelstein's vicious attack on Tom Hooper's film version of this epic theater piece, I thought I was living in a parallel universe, one which is moved by epic story-telling, both intimate and grand music, and one of the greatest musical casts since SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. But enough faint praise. Let's get down to specifics. Director Hooper  (Oscar, THE KING'S SPEECH) has a grand vision that lifts the stagebound musical into a more realistic, though often stylized, world. Instead of seeing characters in spotlights, we see them in interlocking cuts expressing their sentiments both to other cast members and to the audience. This is one of the great advantages of film. The opening sequence masterfully introduces Jean Val-Jean (Hugh Jackman in great acting and singing form) as he and fellow convicts attempt to lug a giant ship ashore. The themes of injustice to the poor and the hope for atonement and regeneration dominate the film in both song and sight. In an early scene the workers and the poor sing:

              At the end of the day you're another day older
             And that's all you can say for the life of the poor
                               It's a struggle, it's a war
                And there's nothing that anyone's giving
               One more day standing about, what is it for?
                               One day less to be living.

Director Hooper pans across the singers, forcing us to look at desperate, misshapen, and hopeless faces and not avoid them as we often avoid the poor we see in our own experience. Moments later we meet a prime example of grinding poverty, Fantine, played and sung with ferocious intensity by Anne Hathaway. Her show-stopping song "I Dreamed a Dream," in which she recalls her descent into hopelessness is the film's highlight. Fantine dies in the arms of Jean Val-Jean, spurring several plots forward. He saves and adopts Fantine's daughter Cosette, who grows into the lovely and innocent Amanda Seyfried. Jean Val-Jean is now hiding in plain sight and trying to avoid capture from his nemesis Javert (Russell Crowe, dramatically powerful, vocally tenuous at best). All of this is played against the failed Revolution of 1832  . Marius, played and sung beautifully by Eddie Tremayne, has fallen in love with Cosette, and she with him, while the hapless Eponine (Samantha Banks, the best and most professional voice in the film) looks on longingly. One of the best numbers in the film is their impassioned trio "A Heart full of Love," which is only one of the many numbers inspired by operatic classics.

The film's great climax comes as the students build a barricade out of furniture and empty coffins while singing "Do you Hear the People Sing?". This was a sensation on Broadway, but in the film it opens up to the streets of Paris, as people throw their furniture from the windows above to show their solidarity. "Do You Hear the People Sing? is recalled at the end of the film as Jean Val-Jean is called to Heaven. Both scenes are unabashedly emotional, and it takes a hard heart not to react. I feel the same way about the entire film. LES MISERABLES sweeps its viewers through a revolution and a multitude of love stories, betrayals, and deaths. Whether small or large, director Hooper infuses each scene with passion and artistry. But let's not forget what really makes LES MISERABLES a classic. It's the music. One of the best scores in musical theater history, LES MISERABLES was written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg and spans musical genres from farce ("Master of the House," in which Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen clown it up in fine style) to love songs to stirring patriotic anthems. Unlike some film adaptations, LES MISERABLES doesn't underplay the music and the singing. The actors all did their own singing and were recorded on film and soundtrack, unlike the dubbing usually done in films like CHICAGO. The effect is one of immediacy and realism in the most unreal of movie genres...the Musical.

Monday, December 17, 2012


Peter Jackson, whose epic trilogy THE LORD OF THE RINGS, became one of the most successful franchises in movie history, has returned to J.R.R. Tolkien's fabled Middle Earth, this time to tell the prequel to LOTR. Fortunately, he has more success than George Lucas did with his clunky prequels to the original STAR WARS series.  THE HOBBIT (1937) is a relatively short and simple book about dwarves, a wizard, and a hobbit on a quest for gold. It would have made one good film, but Jackson has decided to go the trilogy route again. Whether for profit or for story-telling possiblities remains to be seen.

Jackson's first installment of THE HOBBIT is a long, sometimes over-stuffed but energetic adventure that presses the major themes of most fantasy stories for young people: good battling evil against almost impossible odds and the process of the protagonist accepting his role in that battle. Martin Freeman plays Bilbo Baggins, a home-body Hobbit who leaves his comfort zone to follow a ragged band of dwarves and their psychic leader the itinerant wizard Gandalf in a quest for the gold stolen by the dragon Smaug. Their journey is filled with nasty Orcs, ghastly dwarf-eating trolls, and worst of all, carnivorous goblins. Some of the battles, especially with the Orcs, seem overly repetitive. How many Orc heads do we need thrown in our faces in ever-sharpening 3-D technology? And why does it take 40 minutes for Bilbo and the gang to leave the shire in the first place?

Nevertheless, there are wonderful moments in THE HOBBIT. One of the best is Bilbo's extended confrontation with the younger version of Gollum we know from LOTR.  Played again with a mixture of uncanny grace and repulsiveness, Gollum is one of the great film characters in film history, and Andy Serkis, who voiced him and motion-captured him deserves an Oscar nod. Bilbo and Gollum play an amusing game of riddles, with Bilbo's life on the line. When Gollum loses the Ring the entire plot of Lord of the Rings is set in motion. The second scene that stands out is both humorous and stomach-churning. The hellish Goblin kingdom in underground caverns is a marvel of intricate crosswalks, ladders and crannies all leading to the grossly obese King of the Goblins, who cracks jokes as he plans his next snack. And there is a beautiful scene of the dwarves' aerial rescue by magnificent eagles.

Peter Jackson may not have matched his Oscar-winning triumph THE RETURN OF THE KING, but he has created a rousing and often beautiful entertainment in THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Tis the season when emotions rise, for better or worse. In many cases they are stirred by the media. Last Sunday night we watched the 60 MINUTES interview with Hugh Jackman, who plays Jean-Val Jean in the film version of the musical LES MISERABLES. It was only a 20 minute interview, but I found my tear ducts warming up every time the musical score boomed and Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and others belted out their songs with emotional bravaura. I should invest in Kleenex stock. The film is going to be an emotional avalanche, and I can't wait!

Then, Betsy and I were watching a repeat of Episode 2 of the second season of DOWNTON ABBEY, that toney Brit import on Public Television (Yes, I sent in my pledge) that has captivated American Anglophiles and soap opera fans alike. The scene that caught us off guard involved the Grantham family dealing with bad news with the proper stiff upper lip. They have learned that Matthew Crawley has gone missing behind German lines. But the show must go on; i.e, the musicale for recovering soldiers is in full swing. Sisters Lady Mary (Matthew's true love) and Lady Edith are soldiering through "If You Were the Only Girl in the World," and suddenly the missing Matthew appears. The song, the look on Lady Mary's face, the entire package brought me to tears. I turned to Betsy, and she was snuffling as well. More stock in Kleenex.

So should we do the "amurican" thing and stifle our tears? I think not. At this season of the year, at this juncture of our fractured world, maybe a few heartfelt tears, elicited by popular but worthy dramatic works, can be healthy and even cathartic for us all.  MERRY CHRISTMAS.

Monday, December 10, 2012


Want to give your movie-loving relative or friend a special treat for Christmas? Try one of these treasures:

NOTORIOUS, 1946. Hitchcock's best film from the 1940's features brilliant direction, beautifully designed black and white photography, and, of course, the stars. Cary Grant is a suave U.S. agent who enlists Ingrid Bergman, the daughter of a traitor and a "notorious" party girl, to spy on Nazi-sympathizers in Rio just after WWII. As he trains her, they fall madly in love. Her job forces her to marry wealthy industrialist Claude Rains and leads her into life-threatening danger. The famous key sequence that leads to deadly discoveries is the highlight of this suspense classic.

BLACK NARCISSUS, 1947 . Directed by Michael Powell and Emereck Pressburger, this fever-pitched drama about English nuns alone in a mountainous northern Indian province, provides Deborah Kerr one of her greatest roles. As Sister Clodagh, Kerr must control not only her high-strung sisters but also her own conflict between her faith and her simmering desire for a rough adventurer. This is a role she would enlarge on in HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON, 1957.   The stunning color photography by Jack Cardiff won the Oscar for Best Cinematography, and Kerr won the New York Critics Award for Best Actress. Kerr would be nominated for 6 Best Actress awards, but BLACK NARCISSUS remains her finest performance.

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, 1944. Vincente Minnelli's gingerbread dream of America in 1904 as the World's Fair approached starred Judy Garland in one of her signature roles, Esther Smith, an idealistic, romantic girl who falls in love with "The Boy Next Store." This rose-colored valentine to Americana featured Garland belting "The Trolley Song" and giving "Have Yourself a Merry, Little Christmas" its most tremulous, personal interpretation. Filmed in MGM's vivid storybook colors, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS remains one of the great musicals of all time.

BEST IN SHOW, 2000. One of the funniest satires ever made, this Christopher Guest-directed farce takes a close and scathing look at the dog show buisness. The cast of clueless owners includes ventriloquist and good ole boy (director Guest) and his bloodhound Hubert; a tacky but lovable couple (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara), who seem to run into her former conquests at every turn, and their Norwich Terrier Winky; an obnoxious yuppie couple  (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock), who personify status-climbing, and their neurotic Weimaraner; Sheri Ann Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge), a bosomy blonde based on Anna Nicole Smith),  her barely alive sugar daddy, her standard Poodle Rhapsody in White, and her trainer Christie Cummings (Jane Lynch); and a campy gay couple played by John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean. It's amazing how many of these folks can be seen when you watch the annual Westminister Dog Show.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Ang Lee, a Hungry Tiger, and 3-D

Having achieved artistic and financial success in surprisingly different genres, the Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee has once again pulled off the nearly impossible. His first English speaking film SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, 1995, was a delightful adaptation that balanced the spirit and mirth of Jane Austen with a deeper, almost melancholy sensitivity and was nominated for 7 Oscars, winning one for Emma Thompson's Best Adapted Screenplay.

In 1999 Lee created an exotic world unfamiliar to most Americans in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, an epic martial arts epic that lifted the genre into both art and popular culture. His biggest gamble was using the Chinese language, instead of English. His risk paid off with an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and three Oscars in the technical categories.

But perhaps his greatest gamble was 2005's BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, an unprecedented and frank look at an abiding love between two macho cowboys. Lee won the Oscar for Best Director and the film was nominated for eight more. The performances, especially those of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall, were heart-rending and sincere, mostly due to Lee's direction.

THE LIFE OF PI, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Yann Martel, proved to be Ang Lee's greatest challenge. To tell a story where most of the action is placed on the high seas with only a boy and a hungry tiger seemed daunting, but Lee upped the stakes by using 3-D. Only a few films have used the process seriously, most notably AVATAR. Following the novel's structure, Lee uses a frame work where the middle-aged Pi tells the story of his strange past. When he was a child, Pi  and his family owned a zoo in India. Under political pressure, they decided to move to Canada with their animals. Early in the voyage a violent storm sinks the ship and only Pi escapes; that is, only Pi, a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a voracious tiger named Richard Parker, who quickly dispenses with the other animals.

So the great heart of LIFE OF PI is the struggle between a 16 year old boy and a hungry tiger together on a raft under every possible weather condition. Director Lee embraces this challenge with 3-D, not the kind that hurls objects at viewers but one that pulls them into the scene so that they feel as though they are on that raft. This dynamic involvement lifts this story to a higher level. The audience not only sees a sea filled with illuminated jelly fish shimmering in a heavenly aura but they feel surrounded by them. A similar feeling occurs when a whale rises close to the raft at night. Lee maintains an incredible level of tension between boy and tiger while suffusing the screen with beauty. One theme is that Pi manages to survive by keeping the tiger alive. This gives him purpose. Part of his drive to stay alive comes from his deeply felt religious beliefs in...Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity. Ang Lee makes all this and more believable and even transformative. See LIFE OF PI in a theater in 3-D for its full impact.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

New to DVD...Some good, Some rancid

There are four new films out on dvd this month, all of which won critical approval. But, as my grandson reminds me, what do we critics know?

1. MOONLIGHT KINGDOM, directed by that master of quirky Wes Anderson (RUSHMORE, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS), presents a Romeo and Juliet story where off-beat tweens fall in love and bring their whole island home into panic and eventual harmony. The style of the film is detailed and beautifully but artificially colored, as in a fairy tale. The cast includes newcomers as the tweens and a bevy of Anderson types: Bruce Willis as a sensitive cop, Bill Murray as a detached and often drunk dad, and Ed Norton as an inept but charming scout master who finally saves the day. If you liked films like RUSHMORE, this should be a treat.

2. THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES, directed by Lauren Greenfield, is a documentary about David A. Siegal and his wife who aspire to build their own palace based on Louis IV's Versailles. Siegal's fortune was based on luxury time-share resorts. When the filming began, the Siegals were building the largest mansion in America near Orlando, Florida. Jackie Siegal tours us through her mansion and her life, both of which are gaudy and bigger than life. As we watch we feel like doing the superiority dance. How can these people live this corruption of the American dream? How can they have such poor taste? You really have to see the film to believe the excess. Yet as the dream turns sour after the financial crash, we actually feel some sympathy for these folks, especially the children. But, not that much!


1. TAKE THIS WALTZ, directed by Sarah Polley, stars the engaging Michelle Williams as a young Canadian wife who loves her sweet husband, an appealing Seth Rogen, but is attracted to a free spirited and sexy man who just happens to live across the street. This film is vapid and filled with longing looks and fuzzy, sunlit photography that even the Hallmark Channel seems zippy in comparison.

2. MY SISTER'S SISTER, directed by Lynn Shelton, is another relationship story that falters quickly. Jack(Mark Duplass), who is still grieving his brother's death, takes a quick vacation offered by his platonic friend Iris (Emily Blunt). He thinks he will be alone but discovers Iris's sister Hannah (Rosemary de Witt) has arrived. As they get drunk together, their animosity turns into into lust. The next morning Iris arrives and Jack and Hannah desperately try to keep their tryst a secret. That's the movie, folks, except for one annoying factor....the language. I stopped counting the f words at 50, and this in the first half hour. The plot is thin, the wit is witless, and the language is blue to black.

My opinion on these last two is not shared by many. Rolling Stone loved MY SISTER'S SISTER, and NPR was high on both. Okay, I'm a fuddy-duddy, but I like stories with a plot and a purpose and dialogue that is meaningful, witty, and heartfelt. These two just don't measure up.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Lincoln Meets Spielberg

Throughout his storied career, Steven Spielberg has thrilled us with shark attacks, alien encounters, and adventurers like Indiana Jones. He has also presented great moments in history to more people than any teacher or text book. Of course, his films like SCHINDLER'S LIST, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and MUNICH are his interpretations of history. His extraordinary talent as a director of action, emotional acting, and inspiring propaganda has few matches in film history. Yet there are detractors who fault Spielberg for his sentimentality (E.T., HOOK) and his occasional lapses into populism (the JURASSIC PARK series).

In his new film LINCOLN, Spielberg tackles one of the most legendary and loved figures in American history. I had qualms about how the great man would be portrayed by Spielberg. In  the film's first sequence, Lincoln is shown in an aura of shadowy lighting talking with young white and black soldiers in the field. They revere the great man and quote the Gettysburg address, as John Williams' worshipful music lifts to a crescendo.  Too much? Perhaps, but it's pure Spielberg, and it works. This sequence sets up the rest of the film as Lincoln attempts to live up to the expectations of these soldiers, slaves, and all who support the Union.

So, is LINCOLN a review of the president's last days before his assassination with a series of frozen tableaux of his achievements?  Not at all.  Instead Spielberg and his screen writer Tony Kushner (ANGELS IN AMERICA) concentrate on the passing of the 13th Amendment which would outlaw slavery for all time in America. Director and writer tread that fine line between suspense and didacticism, a line most history teachers know well. And they succeed beyond our expectations. A bevy of great actors power the furious debate in the House of Representatives. David Strathairn, who masterfully portrayed Edward R. Murrow in GOOD LUCK, AND GOOD NIGHT, is Secretary of State William Seward, a brilliant politician and true friend and advisor to Lincoln. Sally Field is Mary Lincoln and gives the part a mixture of spite and loving devotion.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln's oldest son, James Spader as a Republican "activist," and the venerable Hal Holbrook as a party leader all give first-rate performances. But Tommy Lee Jones as radical Thaddeus Stevens lifts the debate in the House to hilarious levels with his blunt but truthful characterizations of his Democrat opponents.

But the film's impact rests on the shoulders of Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, and he gives the part a subtle mixture of homespun wit, humility, anger, and political savvy.  What makes this version of the Lincoln legend so relevant to our congressional quagmire today? This film is about politics, good, bad, and ugly, and Abe Lincoln is right in the middle of the fight. He buys votes, hires amoral lobbyists, and persuades defeated incumbents with job appointments. But his goal is one of the greatest in American history, freedom from slavery.

Spielberg, Kushner, and Day-Lewis and their associates have created a document of living history that calls its viewers to many levels--suspense, character, and a love of history. Very few films can claim the like.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


For 50 years, the James Bond franchise has chugged along, despite aliens, star treks, teen vampires, and Hogwarts. SKYFALL, the latest in the series, is quite different from the cool, elegant, and ironic tone set by Sean Connery in the sixties and sustained by replacement Bonds for decades. In 2006, Daniel Craig became the new Bond, giving him a tough, no holds barred personality, and...he was blonde, short, and a bit declasse, in comparison with Sean Connery's Bond.

This is even more apparent in SKYFALL, in which director Sam Mendes (Oscar winner for directing AMERICAN BEAUTY) infuses melancholy and even impending death for not only Bond but also for M (played as though her life depended upon it) and for her espionage unit M-16.  Over and over, there are allusions to obsolescense or death itself.  As Bond waits for his contact with the new Q, he sits squarely in front of William Turner's masterpiece The Fighting Temeraire Being Tugged to her Berth to be broken up. When Q (a perfectly cast Ben Whishaw) arrives, he analyzes the painting in terms of death and destruction. Bond flinches slightly but refuses to accept the metaphor as referring to him.

All of this sounds rather heavy for a Bond film, but fear not.  We still have a crackling good opening sequence where Bond chases his prey through Istanbul on a stolen motorcycle and destroys the requisite market places (think Indiana Jones), then flies over rooftops, jumps on a moving train, uses a caterpillar to pulverize a full car of VW beetles, wrestles with his nemesis as they enter a tunnel, etc., etc. But I don't want spoil it for you.

Yes, there are Bond girls in SKYFALL, but the titilating seductions of DR. NO and all the others are gone.  As for super villains, don't look for Dr. No, Lotte Lenya and Robert Shaw as
Spectre agents  in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, Jaws in two films, or Oddjob in GOLDFINGER or Goldfinger himself. Instead we have Javier Bardem as Raoul Silva, a former M-16 agent who was betrayed by M and wants regenge on her, Bond, and Britain as well. Bardem minces around in a blonde wig and pinches Bond's wounds with sick zest.  He and his gang of thugs are thoroughly disgusting and unbelievable, but they do set up several dramatic face-offs in London and in Scotland at Bond's ancestral manse.

Most of SKYFALL is exciting, but the tone is dark and menacing, as though Mendes is imitating Christopher Nolan's moody Batman series. Connery, Roger Moore and the other urbane Bonds would not be comfortable in this ugly new world. Who could blame them?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Real Versus Surreal: ARGO and CLOUD ATLAS

Two current movies approach the world in vastly opposite ways. ARGO, directed with frenetic action and drama by Ben Affleck, takes on a real incident from 1979 when 6 Americans escaped to the Canadian Embassy as Iranian mobs stormed the U.S. Embassy. A little known story because of official secrecy, the incident makes a crackerjack piece of entertainment that is filled with suspense, action, and satire. Affleck stars as a CIA agent who concocts a fake movie called ARGO with the help of a once successful film director, drolly embodied by the great Alan Arkin, and a once successful make-up pro, played with delightful understatement by John Goodman. Their plan? Create a fake sci-fi film and go to Iran to scout for locations and sneak the refugees out. That this actually happened doesn't take away from the gung-ho drive and character development director Affleck brings to ARGO. We get to know the six refugees as well as the agent and the Hollywood types, and the result is one of the year's best films.

And now for something totally different. Directed by Lana and Andy Wachocski (THE MATRIX) and Tom Tykwer (RUN, LOLA, RUN), CLOUD ATLAS is a phantasmagorical message film filled with so many plots and themes it makes INCEPTION look like Candyland. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, and a host of others embody a number of characters in different eras but often similar situations. In general, this adaptation of David Mitchell's complicated fantasy novel stresses individual freedom from oppression by the corporate state. We see this in the 19th century slave trade, in a young composer trying to keep his original ideas from being stolen by an old master, in innocent elders attempting to break free from their prisonlike nursing homes, and in several other plots.

 The most impressive variation takes place in New Seoul Korea in the 22nd Century, where a fabricant worker (clone) leads a revolution against a totalitarian government. Taking cues from films like BLADE RUNNER and THE MATRIX, the filmmakers have created a dazzling world that masks oppression with glitz. The action scenes are amazing, especially as they are intercut with similar critical moments from the other plots. All of the actors play their roles with honest emotional intensity, but the English actors Jim Broadbent and Ben Whishaw are both brilliant as the old, both good and bad, and the rising new (good). Both are worthy of Oscar nominations, as are the set designs and the make-up

CLOUD ATLAS is not a perfect film. It sometimes becomes didactic in its messages, and it is too long. But it is a spectacular, involving, and never boring film that makes the viewer gasp and even think. That's what good movies should do.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Having lived in a town relatively close to Atlanta for over 45 years, I have often had to drive to the big A to see decent movies because they didn't play here for months, if ever. So last weekend while we were in Memphis with family, I managed to see two well-made, perhaps Oscar-worthy films. The first was ARBITRAGE, smartly directed and written by Nicolas Jarecki and starring Richard Gere as a powerhouse hedge funder in crisis. Judging from the public reaction to some excellent films on the economic crisis (MARGIN CALL), very few will see this one, but they should. Gere gives one of his best performances as he tries to juggle family problems, the implosion of his company, and a cover-up of a personal disaster. The supporting cast is equally strong, especially Susan Sarandon as Gere's seemingly compliant and happy wife and Tim Roth as a dedicated but somewhat sleazy cop on Gere's trail. We expect more emphasis on the wheel and deal world of high finance but instead we are thrown into a tense thriller where death and family ruin are in the cards. Highly recommended.

One of the most popular young adult novels, THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, 1999, has finally been turned into a movie which keeps the strengths of its origins. Why? The author, Stephen Chbosky, has written the screenplay and directed the film himself. As in the novel, "Charlie," the wallflower of the title tells of his dilemma after a mental breakdown before going into high school. He is more than shy and fears a relapse, as do his parents. Logan Lerman, who played Christian Bale's loyal son in THREE TEN TO YUMA, is an appealing young actor who can capture mood changes with just a slight movement in his face. His version of Charlie is humorous, fearful, and occasionally heart-breaking. The camera catches intimate moments without undo comment and that makes them even more emotional. At one point Charlie happens to see his older sister's boyfriend slap her viciously and tries to intervene. This action makes us admire him even more. Emma Watson, of Harry Potter fame, is believable as senior outsider Sam who, along with her openly gay half-brother Patrick, takes him under her wing. That acceptance into a group, even one of outsiders, is the beginning of Charlie's reemergence into life. But there are pitfalls, especially when Charlie falls in love with Sam. The entire cast is excellent, and the wonderful Paul Rudd plays an understanding English teacher. When Charlie spontaneously hugs him at the end of the school year, some former teachers felt more than a little tug at the heart. Unlike most teen dramas, THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is meant to be seen by audiences of all ages. Its understanding of sensitive issues such as mental illness, abuse, and bullying make it much more important than the usual teen trash. Highly recommended.

FOOTNOTE: no bows and arrows, vampires, werewolves, or avengers were used in the making of these films. However, sex, alcohol, rock and roll, and drugs do appear in one or both.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Tim Burton...Odder and More More Beautiful

In 1984 a lowly Disney animator who didn't fit into the Disney happy train created a delightfully different 19 minute film called FRANKENWEENIE, the charming story of a boy and his dog. Typical, but very changed. This time the boy does lose his dog to a car accident, but, inspired by his science teacher, he reanimates Sparky. Tim Burton used live action and actors and filmed in moody black and white to tell his version of the Frankenstein legend. His quirky, often morbid style was already in full play, as he lovingly aped the famous transformation scenes from both the original FRANKENSTEIN and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN of 1930's fame.

Often taking a short skit or film and stretching it into a full length movie doesn't work. Just look at most of the Saturday Night Light sketch characters who had films based on the show and were never heard of again. But here we are in 2012 and Tim Burton, one of the most successful directors today, has reanimated his original film and stretched it into over 100 minutes. Did it work? Yes, mostly so.
All the gothic lighting, foreboding but amusing music, and wry homages to old movies are here. Plus there are even more allusions to past films. One key difference is that this film is animated, not live action. The charming performances of the actors in the original (Shelley Duvall as Mom, Daniel Stern as Dad, and Barret Oliver as young Victor Frankenstein are replaced by voiced cartoonish figures that simply don't deliver the humor and humanity of the originals. That aside, Burton has created a visual feast of bizarre characters and events.

The plot is basically the same. Young Victor loves his dog Sparky, Sparky gets whacked by an auto, Victor (using his school science lessons and every electrical appliance in his house, including the family toaster) reanimates Sparky with mixed success. Soon the secret is out and the townspeople (think those unruly villagers in the old Frankenstein movies) are on the march. We even have the famous scene that ends FRANKENSTEIN, where the monster is chased up to the windmill and consumed in flames...or so we think. Burton provides many inside jokes. Victor's neighbor is named Elsa Van Helsing, referencing Elsa Lancaster as the original BRIDE and DRACULA's famed vampire hunter, Van Helsing.  She even receives a lightning hair-do. Victor's weird schoolmate is Edgar E. Gore, alluding to Igor, the hunchbacked lab assistant from the original FRANKENSTEIN films and even more so in Mel Brooks' brilliant parody YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.

The big plot extension comes with Victor's secret being stolen by his classmates. Their experiments turn into monsters. We see a turtle become a Godzilla, a cat become a vampire, etc. And finally there is the great windmill scene. Burton has created a clever, artfully crafted film. Even though it doesn't quite match the fresh spirit of the original, this FRANKENWEENIE is a treat.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Bang, Bang! Past, Present & Future

Not much seems to change with America's love of gunfire, as evidenced in three recent films that take place in the 1930's, the present, and the next century. The first is LAWLESS, a prohibition drama that tells the "true" story of three brothers who run a moonshine buisness in Southern Virginia. Suddenly big time crime bosses from Chicago try to take over, and the Bondurant Brothers refuse to back down. That's it. That's the movie. As the oldest and fiercest of the brothers, Forrest, Tom Hardy is taciturn and menacing but also appealing. He is the head of the family, and family comes first. Shia LaBoeuf plays the youngest brother, who is itching for action and a chance to prove himself. Herein lies the film's major flaw. LaBoeuf is totally miscast as country boy. His speech and demeanor signal a greaseball in a Chicago speakeasy, not a struggling kid in the sticks. The most interesting performance comes from Guy Pearce who plays corrupt special deputy Charley Rakes, a near psychopath, who is both a dandy and a sadist. Pearce, with greased back hair and city zoot suits, plunges into his role and steals the movie. Needless to say, the gunfights are plentiful and extremely graphic. LAWLESS has several effective dramatic moments, but the guns rule, as they probably did back in 1930's rural Virginia.

The best of these three films is set in present day Los Angeles. END OF WATCH is yet another police drama that dives into the worst areas of city life, in this case, South Central LA, where poverty, drug running, and crime are the norm. The director, David Ayer, wrote the screenplay for the powerful drama TRAINING DAY, which exposed corruption in the LAPD and won Denzel Washington an Oscar for playing an immoral cop. Ayer's take on the department is much more humane here as he explores the strong friendship between two young partners, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena. While patrolling they kid each other with ethnic jokes, but it is obvious that these guys have a true friendship. But every day is a chance for disaster. The title "end of watch" refers to a traditional response to the death of a police officer on duty, so the premise of the friendship under pressure leads us to wonder who will die or if no one will. The men are filming an informal documentary, so there is much jolting camera work, perhaps too much. But the expose of the conditions that many suffer in South Central LA is gritty and rings true, and Pena and Gyllenhaal are superb.

As for the future, the highly praised LOOPER plays with time travel, always a tricky subject.
The talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays looper Joe Simmons. Simmons works for a Mafialike crime syndicate that runs Kansas in 2044. His job is to kill people from 2074 who are sent back for extermination. In 2074 time travel was invented but quickly outlawed, even though the mob secretly uses it. Joe is stunned to realize that his latest target is his older self, a grizzly, take-no-prisoners looper. Naturally the two begin a hide and discover game that leads to a bloody shootout at the film's end. Old Joe, played by Bruce Willis, is out to kill the baby who will grow up to be the man who orders his killing. Got that? It is involved, but not complex or philosophically interesting on the level of the much superior INCEPTION a few years ago. The physical violence in LOOPER is as nasty as that of the films above, but there is more dread implied since children are involved.

Sunday, September 30, 2012


Ever wonder if you're stuck in a rut with your ready? Still reading Tom Clancy even after he's dead? Let me tell you about my rut. Here are three novels I read this summer because of reviews or recommendations. Listen to the jacket flap synopses:

1. THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU by Joshua Henken. An American-Jewish family gathers at their traditional summer home to commemorate the death of a son and brother in Iraq a year earlier. But there are simmering problems. Mom and Dad are considering divorce. The youngest sister is now living an ultra-orthodox life in Israel with her husband and three sons, and the rest of the family tiptoes around their disapproval; one daughter has lived with her boy friend for 10 years and doesn't plan to get married: more silent disapproval. The other sister is desperately trying to get pregnant, even though her husband doesn't care much: more disapproval. And everyone feels unwelcome, unloved, misunderstood, you name it. In other words, the perfect dysfunctional novel. Henken writes with assurance, wit, and understanding, so it's very enjoyable. You get to fool yourself once again and sigh, "Thank God I'm not in THAT family."

2. MAINE by J. Courtney Sullivan. This one takes place in a single month, June, at a family beach retreat on the coast of Maine. It is now owned by the family matriarch Alice, a devout Catholic who has a secret tragedy in her past. Among the dueling and misunderstood visitors are her granddaughter Maggie who is pregnant and solo, Maggie's mother, the black sheep of the family who returns from California to help her daughter, and Anne-Marie, her up-tight daughter-in-law whose marriage is in crisis. A series of confrontations and recriminations ensues, and again we are relieved this is not our family, but we are happy to be willing voyeurs. Anne-Marie is the most fully developed character, a woman who wants to do everything right but manages to disappoint herself and irritate everyone around her. Yes, we all know someone like her...but not in our family.

3. SEATING ARRANGEMENTS by Maggie Shipstead. I enjoyed all three of my "rut" novels, but this one really proved entertaining. It's set in pure Cheever or Louis Auchinloss territory (a great place for readers to be) with near one percenters desperately trying to rise above their neighbors while decrying their larger homes and exclusive clubs while longing for them. Winn Van Meter, a successful Boston money manager, was educated at Harvard, joined and loved the best clubs, and became the snob his father raised him to be. Now Winn is approaching 60 and headed for his summer "cottage" on a fictional island off New England to give his pregnant older daughter away in marriage. His younger daughter is recovering from a romantic breakup and an abortion. Bridesmaids are taking over the house, and Winn is overwhelmed by the feminine. Add to that his growing lust for the sexiest bridesmaid and his desperate groveling to members of the vaunted Pequod club. All of this is fleshed out with wit, a little touch of pathos, a dead whale and a real understanding of the characters' strengths and flaws. The satirical targets, especially during this politcal season, are ripe for easy peeling, but they retain their humanity because we often identify with them.


Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Night the Music Died?

On our recent trip to Connecticut, we listened to Don McLean's classic album American Pie, which first appeared in 1971 and quickly topped the American pop charts. The title song of the same name is the longest popular song ever to reach number 1 at 8 minutes and 33 seconds, too long for a single 45 and forcing the listener to flip the disc. You remember 45's, right? Must have been a whole lotta flipping back in '71. The lyrics have been rehashed, interpreted, and driven into the ground since the song came out. Even Madonna recently sang it, not doing it any good at all. "American Pie" remains one of the most unique songs in popular music history, and that includes songs by Gershwin, Porter, and Sondheim. It evokes the glory and sadness of an era saddened by "the day the music died."

Although "American Pie" is one of the seminal and most important songs in pop history, the album itself is also worthy of great praise. Its second brilliant song, also a hit, is "Vincent" or "Starry, Starry Night," an intelligent and heartfelt tribute to Van Gogh. McLean describes the artist's dilemma of creativity and continued lack of success. With vivid images that evoke several of Van Gogh's famous canvasses, he subtly compares his own striving for creativity and success. McLean's gently soothing guitar provides a loving background for his highly original lyrics. He...."suffered for his sanity,...and took his life as lovers often do."

The album also features other wonderful originals by McLean including a hilarious rock parody about rock idol fame called "Everybody Loves Me, Baby." All of the songs are McLean originals except the closing the traditional and haunting "By the Waters of Babylon." All in all, McLean's greatest achievements are his probing intelligence, his poetic expertise, and his beautiful melodic expression. Just listen.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Two recent films deserve movie lovers' attention and even admiration. The first is The Separation, an Iranian film from 2011 that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, a rare honor for a foreign film. The writing, the acting, and especially the direction are far above most American movies. The plot is fairly simple. An Iranian woman doctor wants to emigrate with her teenaged daughter, and her husband refuses to join her because of his father's poor physical and mental health. The doctor leaves to be with relatives, while the daughter stays with her father who is also her tutor. A series of misunderstandings occur when the father hires a care taker for his father, leading to crisis after crisis. The film explores religious and class warfare in modern Iran, but on a personal, gutsy level. The acting is always natural, whether dramatic or humorous. These are ordinary families, like ours, but in extraordinary circumstances that don't get the typical Hollywood treatment.

Another film about the middle east is much lighter and more hopeful. Salmon Fishing in theYemen is a British film about a shiek who wants to build his own salmon stream in Yemen. The Brits, looking for a good news story about the Arabia, supply advisors and through great difficulty start the program. Emily Blunt plays an advisor to the shiek and Ewan McGregor is a fishing expert who is won over by the shiek's kindness and by Blunt.  The great Kristin Scott Thomas is dead-on as the Prime Minister's press secretary, bawdy, brassy, and charming. There are, of course, many complications such as tribal terrorists who don't want western influence and romantic partners who show up at inopportune times. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a warm, witty film with just the right amount of sentiment.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Wisdom of Clint

 There's a fine line that celebrities tread when they enter the political melee. Just ask Barbra Streisand and Jane Fonda. Or perhaps Clint Eastwood. The venerable star of spaghetti westerns, violent Dirty Harry flicks, and chimp comedies eventually became a first-rate director with two
Oscars for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. As he aged, he seemed to be the wise sage of Hollywood, but then he spoke at the GOP convention and wisdom, judgment, and good taste flew out the window.

There he was talking to an empty chair which he addressed as Barack Obana. In a rambling, distasteful, and disrespectful diatribe, Eastwood figuratively told the President to go ¥£€%# himself.
 He also lit into Vice-President Joe Biden, calling the experienced legislator a "joke."  It's one thing for comics, cartoonists and professional muckrakers to rant against their foes. But it is quite another for a special guest at a national convention to do so and to so in a non- sensical, boorish manner. Dirty Harry has really blown 'em away this time. And he doesn't have the last laugh.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

BERNIE...A Delightful Surprise

If anyone had told me that a movie starring Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, and Shirley MacLaine would be a delightful surprise, I would have laughed. But, sure enough, the dark comedy Bernie, closely based on true events in the small town of Carthage, Texas, provides great characters, quirky humor, and a real sense of local color. Jack Black stars as Bernie, an assistant funeral home director who has won the love and respect of the entire town with his generosity and good nature. Everyone loves Bernie, whether he is singing at a funeral or at church, directing the local theater group, leading the boy scouts, he is always available to help with his cheery and unselfish good will.

So it comes as quite a shock when the town learns that he has murdered his benefactor and long-time companion Marjorie Nugent, a widowed millionarie hated by the entire town. Shirley MacLaine is irascibly perfect as Marjorie, a demanding, lonely, untrusting biddy who becomes dependent on Bernie while he becomes dependent on her wealth. They take cruises together, hit the spas together, go to church with each other for years until she finally demands his full attention and drives him to shoot her in the back in her garage after one last demeaning order.

The film is set up with "witnesses," in the style of movies like When Harry Met Sally. These are real citizens of Carthage, most of whom still love Bernie, despite his crime. The director, Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset),  infuses the film with genuine appreciation for small town relationships, Texas mores, and clever touches. What could have been a scathing satire like Election instead becomes a gentle ribbing of easy targets. We like these people, even Marjorie Nugent. Jack Black gives his best career performance. His character is a gentle, caring man who borders on a gay stereotype but resists that obvious temptation for laughs. Instead, one feels for him, as do the good citizens of Carthage, Texas.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Jane Austen with a hint of raciness and race

We just watched the 1999 version of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park with a capable English cast, few of whom we had seen before. The heroine of this story is Fanny Price, played with wit and grace by Frances O'Connor. As a child Fanny is taken from her impoverished family to her aunt and uncle's estate to be raised with their children. As she grows up, she writes history, novels, and opinions and is befriended by the second son Edmund, while the other children look down on her. As an adult, Fanny is pursued by a charming cad whom the family pushes her to marry. Fanny, like Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, is honest, out-spoken, witty and far superior to those around her. But, as in other Austen novels, it takes her a long time to bring these assets to the fore and realize what to do with them. This is the strongest element of the film.

I wonder what Jane Austen would say about some of the expansions the film makes on her plot. Sir Thomas Benton, her benefactor, seems a good and caring man, but Fanny and we discover that Mansfield Park is paid for by slave labor in Antigua. His eldest son Tom made sketches of the brutal treatment these slaves received, even from Sir Thomas. Another interesting suggestion in the film is that of a lesbian desire on the part of Mary Crawford, the somewhat amoral sister of Fanny's ardent suitor Henry. There are two not too subtle scenes in which she seems to be seducing Fanny. There is also a scene which did definitely not occur in the novel. When Henry fails with Fanny he takes one of the Benton girls to bed. Unfortunately for all, she is married and Henry bails. The scene itself is risque but necessary to reveal truths about the major characters. Would Jane have approved?

Mansfield Park does not have the star power of bigger productions like Pride and Prejudice (Colin Firth on Masterpiece, Keira Knightly in the film) or Sense and Sensibility (Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, and the wondrous Kate Winslett). But it has solid performances and strong story-telling. I highly recommend this little seen jewel.

Another film now on dvd features a very different young woman from what Austen imagined. Margaret, a long delayed film by director Kenneth Lonergan (the wonderful You Can Count on Me with Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo giving superb performances) is a portrait of a high school girl who witnesses a tragic bus accident and believes that she and the driver were responsible. This idea becomes an obsession with Margaret, played with gutsy aggression by Anna Paquin (Oscar winner for The Piano), who alienates her friends and family. The film takes its good time in developing her character. Part of the problem is that director Lonergam, who originally insisted on a 3 hour cut, can't resist moody shots of the New York skyline or of Margaret wandering the streets where the accident occurred. The supporting cast is almost flawless, especially Mark Ruffalo as the broken bus driver and J. Smith-Cameron as her highly strung but loving mother. Margaret could have been as fine a film as You Can Count on Me, if restraint and fewer plot elements had been used. Still, it is still worth seeing for the performances and for one of the most riveting accidents I have ever seen in a movie.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

I heard the news today, oh, boy

Mitt Romney's choice of Representative Paul Ryan for Vice-President is a clarion call to action for anyone who cares what happens to this country in the next decade. As affable, charming, and intelligent as Ryan seems, one has only to listen to what he proposes in his GOP budget plan to realize that he is not in touch with American needs.

As I was driving down Division Street here in Rome recently, I had to slow down for a woman walking on the railroad track. She seemed disoriented and eventually shuffled down the sidewalk. I kept wondering what will happen to her and who would take care of her. There are a number of poorer families (white, black, and hispanic) in the same area. Of the group, only the hispanics seem to be making any progress. Each time I drive out Shorter Avenue I see two or three crippled men on scooters, one of whom has no legs. I see people waiting in the searing heat waiting for a bus and looking forlorn. What are their advantages? Who cares about them? These and millions like them are invisible to Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. They are on different streets with different destinations. Why should they care?

Romney keeps demanding that we increase military strength, not cut military spending. He does not seem to realize that defense in this century is going to rely far less on ships and planes and more on diplomacy and good will. His embarassing goofs on his European trip are proof of that. Ryan has little or no international experience. As for Ryan's budget proposals, they threaten to end the current medicare program and offer set vouchers for seniors within 10 years. So, the new health care law will be destroyed, and those 40 million or so Americans without care will have to fend for themselves. Never mind that they and millions of seniors won't be able to afford the vouchers. Other cuts will come for women who care about their health and their reproductive rights. If Ryan and his claque have their way, reproductive rights and planned parenthood will be things of the past.

So, I ask that we start noticing the people on the streets, not just the avenues, that we see many of the folks at our local super market, including the checkout workers, the elderly couples carefully counting their coupons, the downtrodden women with too many children, and all those who need help. If we don't see them, it's a cinch that Ryan and Romney won't.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Summer Reading Time!

Since it's too hot to move outside, we've been doing a lot of pleasure reading, some better than others.
Let's start with 2009 Booker Prize Winner Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel,  whose dense and riveting novel about Thomas Cromwell examines the complex and often callous world of Henry VIII's court. For once, Cromwell is not the villainous creep that is described in the play and movie A Man for All Seasons. Here is a multifaceted man who rises from a humble home where he was abused by a drunken father to one of the most powerful positions in England. He does it by listening, learning, and using his knowledge to aid the king and to advance himself. Mantel brings humanity to Cromwell with his personal life, especially the loss of his wife and children. Bring Up the Bodies, the second in a trilogy on Cromwell, is already a best seller.

Tom Perotta has established a reputation as a sharply observant and often cynical viewer of modern middle America. His best earlier novels were Election, a humorously scathing look at high school politics and sex and also a terrific movie, and Little Children, which examines infidelity and double standards in the internet age. Now he has come up with The Leftovers, which imagines what happens when a non-religious "rapture" takes away millions of people of all races and creeds. The fundamentalists are filled with guilt, despair, and wonderment. Why were Hindus, Episcopalians, atheists, and sinners taken, and some of "us" were not? The novel concentrates on a fictional and typical American town, where families are adjusting to new family dynamics after their loved ones have vanished. Somehow Perotta's concept lacks room for his usual humor, and the effort falls flat. He substitutes fringe groups, sexual encounters, and depression for his usual twisty plot interactions, and it doesn't work. For his best work, read Election and Little Children.

Anne Tyler, who wrote acclaimed novels such as  The Accidental Tourist, has a light-hearted and occasionally poignant novel called The Beginner's Goodbye. The protagonist falls in line with her standard characters. Aaron is  self-absorbed, quirky, shy, intelligent, and totally out of touch with social interaction. His wife is killed when a tree collapses on her study, and he is plunged into numbing grief. Eventually he begins to see his wife at odd times and tries to communicate with her. He discovers that they really didn't communicate when she was alive. The characters, especially Aaron, his sister, and his contractor for rebuilding his house are fully fleshed out and provide humorous contrasts. However, the supernatural element doesn't quite work. For Tyler's best work, go back to one of her celebrated earlier novels.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Three unique novels

Every summer the magazines, NPR, etc. feature reviews and teasers for new novels. This past few weeks I have enjoyed three of them immensely. These aren't just beach reads, though they could be for discriminating readers.

The first is Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. This is a bittersweet, caustic, and often funny story about fame and the often destructive results of its pursuit. Its characters include a lovely young American actress who in 1962 is an extra in Cleopatra, a young Italian hotel owner named Pasquale who runs a remote hotel on the Italian coast, the randy and often drunk actor Richard Burton (yes!), a press agent who becomes a Hollywood big shot, a failed musician hoping for a comeback, and several others. The trick is that the novel jumps back and forth between 1962, World War II,  the recent past and even back to the infamous Donner Pass episode. The earlier scenes lead to unexpected humorous and sad results, and Jess Walter describes them with wit and humanity. In setting up such a complex plot, Walter promises a big payoff, and he provides a great one. Don't skip a word.

Gillian Flynn's third novel Gone Girl is a terrific mashup of genres: romance, mystery, detective, you name it. The novel starts the morning of Nick and Amy Dunne's fifth wedding anniversary and is told in alternating chapters. First, Amy's voice in her diary and later her own, then Nick's reactions to her disappearance. The reader doesn't know whom to believe and often doesn't care, because both Nick and Amy are beautiful, spoiled, narcissitic liars but totally engaging, no matter their deviousness. Was Amy abducted, did Nick kill her, why did she or someone else leave so many clues (mostly red herrings)? Gone Girl has fascinating, fully formed characters like Nick's masculine twin sister who watches his back while wondering just a little if he's guilty, an oozingly caring Oprah-like talk show host who interviews Nick, a Mutt and Jeff local police couple, and a former beau of Amy's who lives a hermetic life with his smothering mother but still yearns for Amy. Quite a stew pot, but Flynn keeps us on edge until the surprising ending.

John Brandon's A Million Heavens is an engaging mixture of magic realism, naturalism, and hopefulness. In a dying New Mexico desert town, an odd group of people react to the sudden coma of a child piano prodigy. His gruff father keeps watch at his bedside, a group of vigilants stand in silence every Wednesday night outside Simon's window, a California divorcee uses a nomadic 20 year old to father her child while he uses her for refuge, the mayor longs to bring his fmily together, and a young woman grieves for her bandmate who died in a truck crash. And in a waiting cell in heaven, the young musician Reggie begins to write songs only he can create, and in some strange symbiosis his girl hears the songs, a roaming wolf hears the songs, and....This is a novel that seems depressive but redeems itself with hope and fine writing.

Friday, August 3, 2012

How the Olympics forced me to see TED!

Mea Culpa! I would never have gone to see Mark Wahlburg's new comedy Ted if NBC had not been so shoddy in its delayed coverage, its dippy heart-breaking stories, its lack of coverage of anything but the main sports (swimming, diving, gymnastics, Michael Phelps), and ace commentators like John McEnroe on beach volleyball (!). As for host Bob Costas, he seems as fresh-faced as he did 20 years ago at his first time as host. Hmmm, Dorian Gray? So, in a fit of ennui, my friend and I took in one of the worst of the inane sophomoric comedies from the Judd Apatow school of grossness. Directed and co-written by Seth MacFarland of "Family Guy," this is a bromance (a 36 year old man-child and his beloved teddy bear who's had a Pinnochio experience and romance with Mila Kunis. Unfortunately, the adult bear is a doped out, crude, totally unfunny bear, and so goes the movie goes from bad to worst. There is one funny bit, but good tastes forbids describing it.

On to better things, in another night of relief from the Olympics, my wife and I watched the BBC's Masterpiece Contemporary Page Eight, a 2011 film in the John LeCarre tradition. Filled with moles, plots and counterplots, betrayals, and references to actual Brit politics, this drama focuses on MIS agent Johnny Worricker, played impeccably by suave Bill Nighy, whose spotty personal life interferes with his shaky standing as a top spy. The cast is full of some of Britain's best actors Michael Gambon (Dumbledore), Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes, and Judy Davis. All of them give fierce, committed performances, but it is Nighy's superb interpretation of a man who finally has to decide whether to go along with national policy lies or reveal the truth and lose everything that makes this one THE ONE TO WATCH.

Well, time to get back to the Olympics. The tension in men's basketball is overwhelming, so much so that LeBron sat out the second half, an American cutie has bested the Ruskies, and Michael Phelps has, well, you know....medaled out.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises...Slowly and Not High Enough

The anticipation I, along with millions of others, felt before the opening of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises was muted by the tragedy in Colorado last Friday.  The media blitz following the massacre, the arguments about costumes in theaters, violent movies and their influence, or the lack of morality in our culture have little or nothing to do with the merits of the film. This third installment of what some call the Batman Trilogy or Saga aims to be the ultimate word on the Batman legend. It is and it isn't. Christopher Nolan has directed three excellent films, Memento, Inception, and The Dark Knight. But  The Dark Knight Rises is not their equal.

This newest installment begins eight years after the defeat of the Joker, the death of D.A. Harvey Dent, and the death of his Bruce Wayne's love Rachel Dawes. After all this and his crippling fights with the Joker and Dent, Bruce Wayne (hope that wasn't a spoiler), retreats to his mansion and severe depression. It takes a series of strange and chaotic events to pull Bruce back to the Bat Cave. Most of that pull comes from two glamorous beauties, Selina Kyle (also, a jewel thief, aka Catwoman) played by a sinewy, amoral Anne Hathaway, who almost steals the film, and Miranda Tate, a multimillionaire who eventually runs Wayne Enterprises, played by the beautiful Marion Cottilard. Add to that mix the completely insane Bane (not to be confused with Bain Capital) and his army of thugs who quickly blow up much of New Yo...oops, Gotham, trap the police force in the tunnels beneath the city, and set up a nuclear time bomb.

Now this sounds like too many plots for one action movie, and it is. The film is much too long (2 hours and 50 minutes) as well. But it has its strengths, especially in its casting. Cottilard, Cillian Murphy and the intensely vital Joseph Gordon-Levitt were all in Inception. And from the previous Batman films we have Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and even Liam Neeson in a somewhat amorphous form. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has established himself as one of the strongest young actors on the screen today. He was winsome and heart-breaking in 500 Days of Summer, angry and funny as a cancer patient in 50/50, and an athletic action star in Inception. Here he plays an idealistic policeman who joins forces with Batman. He gives a heartfelt performance in a film lacking much heart. And Anne Hathaway gives Selena Kyle a sleek, sexy, powerful kick as she kick boxes and double-crosses everyone, especially Batman.

As I have indicated, The Dark Knight Rises doesn't have humor. Its portentousness quashes any chance of comic relief. This reminds us of Tim Burton's revival of the Batman story. Batman and Batman Returns were both typically quirky Burton products, filled with brilliant set design, arresting and garish costumes and make-up, and over the top performances. In other words, entertainment was the goal, not an epic saga. With Jack Nicholson's Joker and references to classic films like The Wizard of Oz and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Batman (1989) was an instant camp classic. Its follow-up in 1992 Batman Returns continued with more great Danny Elfman music and uniquely bizarre turns by Danny DeVito as The Penquin and a sexy, vinyl-clad Michelle Pfeiffer as Cat Woman. The next two films in the series lost Tim Burton and were sadly lacking any lasting impact. Just ask George Clooney.

Perhaps Batman, like most super heroes, should be geared towards entertainment, not profundity.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Brits Are Coming! Again!

As some of us remember, we had a major British invasion in the 1960's, a musical invasion, that is. The world of music completely changed with the new sounds of the Beatles, the Stones, and many others. Well, the Brits are back for a second round. More on that later, but first a review of The Amazing Spider-Man, the opening of a second round of Spiderman movies. What? You saw the last one 5 years ago? And nobody can do it better than director Sam Raimi and the puckish Tobey McGuire, right? Maybe not. Director Marc Webb, whose previous indy (500) Days of Summer was a delightful film about love and love lost, helms the new Spidey epic. Cast as our hero (aka, Peter Parker) is the trained English actor Andrew Garfield, who won plaudits as the disappointed co-founder of Facebook in The Social Network and Biff, the bitter son in the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

Garfield takes the role and makes it his own from the first scene. Abandoned by his parents as a kid, he lives with his warm and cuddly aunt and uncle (Sally Field and Martin Sheen, who else?). When he begins to discover that he's not just a sulky nerd with a skateboard but a nerd with super powers, his performance takes off (literally as well as figuratively). Gone is the surliness. In its place a growing sense of wonder, humor, and daring. A great deal of his change comes from classmate Gwen Stacey, whom Peter has adored secretly for some time. Played by the radiant Emma Stone, Gwen is smart, driven, and quickly awed by Peter, not just Spidey. There are the typical big screen action scenes, but they are humanized by keeping both Peter and Gwen's story in the forefront. This is a delightful film for fans of all ages.

Back to the current Brit Invasion. Yes, we've had some great actors hail from Britain, but most have maintained their Britishness, even while playing Americans and other nationals. Think of Peter O'Toole as Lawrence, Alec Guiness as Obi Wan Kenobi, Richard Harris as the Man Called Horse (no, don't), Richard Burton in too many bad movies with Liz (excepting Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which he gives his finest performance), Jeremy Irons, Michael Caine, Daniel-Day Lewis, Liam Neeson, the many James Bond actors, James Mason, Deborah Kerr, and many others.

But now we have Andrew Garfield (see above), the great Ian McKellan as Gandalf in LOTR, Ewan McGregor in Big Fish, Moulin Rouge!), James McAvoy in Atonement, Kiera Knightly in Atonement, Pride and Prejudice), Daniel Radcliffe, Christian Bale, all those folks from Canada and Australia, Ralph Fiennes (The Ordinary Gardener, Schindler's List), Kate Winslett, and the list goes on and on. Without these talents our films would be much worse than many think they are. If I have left out one of your favorites, let me know! AND, do me a favor: Forward my blog to friends. My blogging ego is getting lower than Peter Parker before he got bitten!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

More Movies for Adults

Three recent films, vastly different and varying in quality, concern the abiding but often fickle paths of the human heart. The first is People Like Us, currently in release. Based on true incidents, this drama details the surprising journey an unlikable young opportunist takes when his estranged father dies. Not only does it take Sam (Chris Pine) back to his roots in L.A. but to a shocking discovery, a half-sister. His father's will stipulates that Sam take $150,000 to Frankie, a recovering alcoholic barkeep with a rebellious child. He must also come to terms with his anger with his late father and his mother (played with understanding by Michelle Pffeifer). Throughout this process, the film treads the thin line between a possible romance between Frankie and Sam but manages to focus on the growth of all the characters. Sounds a bit soapy, yes? And, no. This is a thoughtful, heartfelt drama with fine performances from the entire cast, especially Elizabeth Banks as Frankie, a good woman trying to live a good life despite the odds.

Hemingway and Gellhorn, an HBO movie directed by Phillip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, The Incredible Lightness of Being), is loosely based on the tumultuous relationship between the hard-living, hard-drinking author and the equally hard-nosed Martha Gellhorn. As they cover and even fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, they compete and they fall in love. After the war, they marry, but when Hemingway steals a World War II assignment from her, they begin to fall apart. The film uses interesting editing approaches. We see scenes going from color to black and white and the reverse, when we go from personal stories to the war zones. The characters are even placed in actual news footage, sometimes effectively and sometimes not. Clive Owen plays Hemingway with an unsure hold on this bigger than life figure. He yells a lot, curses often, but still seems much tamer than one would suspect. On the other hand, Nicole Kidman gives Gellhorn a strong and unbreakable spirit. Her actions eventually show that she was first a journalist and not a writer's wife. After all, she is the only woman who divorced Hemingway.

Twins (De Tweeling) is definitely the best of these three dramas. It tells of twin girls who are separated when their father dies. One goes into virtual bondage on a German farm; the other to a privileged life in a Dutch home. At first they try to contact each other, but the families lie and keep them apart. As young adults they come together in the late 1930's as Hitler begins to conquer Europe and kill the Jewish population. But they are torn apart again and again through political and personal conflicts. The film is suspenseful, but more importantly deeply emotional. This is a film to treasure.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Film for Adults, and not just older ones

Every year, especially in the summer, there is a glut of movies for adolescent males (read 13 on to senility in some cases). Superheroes, action thrillers, and gross-out comedies strangle the multiplexes for months. Last summer Woody Allen's most successful movie Midnight in Paris garnered a large adult and delighted audience. This summer's adult entry is the British comedy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which focuses on seven aging Brits from varying class backgrounds who decide to retire to a luxury hotel in Jaipur, India. What they find when they arrive is a broken down dump run by an overly excited young man, played by Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel.

But the spell of India with its constant noise, music, and color changes their disappointment into an opportunity for personal growth and even romance. The cast is exemplary, drawing from the best of BBC and Masterpiece Theater greats. The redoubtable Maggie Smith trades her uppity Downton Abbey accent for that of a house servant who has come to India for an inexpensive hip replacement. Judi Dench leads the cast as a widow whose husband has left her in debt. Her warm, engaging personality touches almost all of the expatriates and leads to a new love in her life (Bill Nighy). Tom Wilkinson gives a sensitive performance as a respected barrister with a dark secret in India. All of this sounds serious, but this is a comedy with drama. The cast lifts the somewhat mundane plot to comical heights through their interactions with each other and an alien culture. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a delightful version of the philosophy "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade."

On a related note, when I saw this film in Memphis three weeks ago, the theater was fully packed. The next showing promised the same response. Yes, there was a lot of gray but also younger heads as well. Recently NBC canceled its highest rated drama series Harry's Law because the 18-45 audience wasn't watching, and they are the buyers! When will Hollywood figure out that there IS a buying audience and it's growing.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Please don't get me wrong. This is not a screed against religion, Catholicism or any other theological belief. Instead it is question addressed about recent attacks by American Catholic bishops on President Obama and his administration's stance on health care. This week a group of Catholic bishops has launched a "Fortnight for Freedom," in which they intend to fight back against Obama's attempts to impose certain health care sanctions with fasting and prayer. This follows a number of surprisingly strong statements from fellow bishops, including Bishop Daniel Jenky from Peoria, Illinois. "Hitler and Stalin, in their better moments, would just barely tolerate some churches staying open....President Obama with his radical pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda now seems intent on following a similar path."

Note the alarmist words used by Bishop Jenky in a sermon (no less): Hitler, Stalin, radical, pro-abortion, extreme, secularist, agenda. The bishops have said their attacks on Obama are backed by American Catholics. Polls indicate that 57 % of American Catholics are not worried about their religious freedoms. Naturally most of this has been a reaction to the Obama administration's requirements concerning birth control. A church would not be required to offer birth control or pay for it, but Catholic hospitals or universities would. Insurance companies have agreed to swallow the costs because it was cheaper than paying for maternity and child care costs.

In a time when almost 97 per cent of Catholic women, according to many surveys, take birth control at some point in their lives, this all seems a moot point. But try telling the bishops pushing a "Fortnight for Freedom." And ask if that "freedom" includes a woman's freedom to choose.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Prometheus vs. a board game

Which seems more promising? A huge space epic that considers the origins of humans, creation, and Charlise Theron in super tight pants OR a huge alien invasion epic based on a board game from my childhood? Believe it or not, Prometheus, Ridley Scott's much anticipated prequel or sequel or whatever-quel, is less enjoyable than the bloated and cliche-ridden Battleship.

How is this possible? Both movies have shockingly high budgets and amazing special effects. I'm not saying that Prometheus isn't worth seeing. In fact, it is a much better film in almost every respect, except one, the entertainment factor. Battleship, a mash-up of Top Gun and An Officer and a Gentleman, chronicles the coming to manhood of a complete mess-up, played by Friday Night Lights'
Taylor Kitsch. Since this is a fantasy, don't be surprised that our hero manages to overcome Navy brass, the admiral's refusal to have him for a son-in-law, and an alien invasion (a nod to too many movies). The movie moves quickly, the dialogue is corny but fun, and the battles impressive.

Prometheus, on the other hand, has even better and more spectacular effects, many based on the classic designs of the Alien films, the first of which was directed by Ridley Scott. It is a visually gorgeous film. Despite his best efforts, Scott has bitten off more than he can handle. The film suggests that aliens have visited eons ago and now their calling cards have begun a major space probe, manned by good archeologists and bad corporate types (Theron). Neither quite find what they wanted to. But they do encounter lots of horrors, some quite similar to the earlier Alien films, but without the surprise effects. Warning: some of the effects are stomach-churning and difficult to watch, especially the most graphic Caesarian birth ever filmed (even on the medical channels).

So, it's your choice. Alien invasion or human invasion of aliens. Or maybe wait for the new Spiderman.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The TV season...Is there a second act?

This has been a better than average television season and now it's almost over. House closed its season and its series with a rather pretentious soul-searching episode, but the show itself was unique and satisfying for most of its run. Since I only committed to a few dramatic series, I quickly dropped The Killing, a police drama that showed early promise but bogged down in too much nearly black and gray photography and too many red herrings. I almost did the same for Glee, since season 2 was uneven and didn't compare with the pizzaz and invention of the previous season. But I have stuck with Season 3 just hoping for improvement. It didn't happen. The musical numbers hit their nadir with a whole show dedicated to Whitney Houston!

The big questions with my favorite shows is what can happen next after so many plot explanations? Revenge, my favorite guilty pleasure developed its mystery quickly, but as we approach its denouement, what can possibly happen next year? The same could be said for Mad Men, one of the best and most honored series in ages, which has been rocky and lacking direction. How many times can Don Draper make us hate him? Though I'm still impressed by the re-creation of the 1960's look and aura, the quirkiness and subplots often take away from the drama. But the last two episodes have restored my faith. SPOILER ALERT: Joan prostituted herself to achieve full partnership, Peggy quit for greener pastures, and the Brit manager hanged himself. All of these events weighed heavily on Don and gave him a more human dimension.

I have also become a fan of the show biz drama Smash, a seemingly adult version of Glee, where two talented chorus girls vie for the star role in a musical based on Marilyn Monroe's life. It started with a bang but bottomed out mid-season. However, the last three episodes found the show's momentum again and used some great musical numbers and plot twists. And finally, my favorite new show was Person of Interest, a suspenseful procedural about a nerdy but brilliant scientist (Micheal Emerson of Lost) who has invented a machine that can focus on a person who is in danger of being killed. Jim Caviezel is perfect as a former CIA agent who has gone rogue but now acts as the enforcer for the scientist. This is one show to watch.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Let's cut to the chase. Snow White and the Huntsman is the freshest, best looking, and most exciting of the year's big ticket films. It outperforms The Avengers in originality, plot and character development and especially physical detail. Director Rupert Sanders infuses the Grimm fairy tale with even more grimness and darkness than even the brothers may have intended. Men (Chris Hemsworth, et al) are on the screen, but they pale between the conflict between Snow White (Kristen Stewart in a strong and tender performance) and the evil Queen Ravenna (Charlise Theron who throws herself into malevolence like a child attacks ice cream). The previews suggested that the film would be a special effects bonanza, and it is. But even more important, Snow White and the Huntsman uses these effects not only to dazzle but also to build character and conflict. The sight of Theron emerging from a magical milk bath or swirling herself into cawing ravens enforces her sense of desperation for the one thing that can keep her young, Snow White's heart.

Sanders has used a popular theme not found in Grimm. He draws from Arthurian legend, especially from John Boorman's splendid Excalibur, which emphasized the idea that the king (this time the princess to be queen) is the land and the land is the king (queen). Boorman has a famous sequence where Britain and the land have died until Arthur has had a vision of the Grail and rides forth with his knights for his final battle. As they ride forth, the barren landscape breaks forth in foilage and flora to triumphant music from Carmenia Burana. Snow White and the Huntsman makes glorious use of this sequence with the restored Snow White and her knights thundering towards the Queen's castle and ultimate redemption.  This is a film that is exciting, scary, beautiful, and inspiring. See it.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Do Bullies Grow Up?

I worked and lived in a prep school dorm for over 30 years. Dorm duty teachers were told to be vigilant when it came to hazing. I had been in army boot camp and in a college frat, but the hazing and bullying I witnessed in boys' dorms surpassed any I had been subjected to. One night at about 3 a.m. My wife And Iwere awakened to wild screaming. When I arrived on second floor, I encountered boys rolling fiery tennis balls down the hall past a mattress. On that mattress lay a boy sound asleep. The other boys knew this boy had deep sleeping problems and often had to be dragged out of bed To get to classes. They often took advantage but this went beyond simple hazing. It was demeaning and dangerous. A talented athlete received the rumor treatment because he was shy about showering with his teammates and would wait until after lights. The rumor spread that he was gay, despite his athletic prowess and "manly" behavior. One night after a game, his teammates waited until he was in the shower and surprised him with sexual taunts. The humiliated boy did not return for his senior year. Long before the current interest in bullying, weaker students, especially boys were pushed into lockers and hooted at in classes. One had a nervous breakdown; another later committed suicide. A question. Do the victims and perpetrators remember these humiliations? Mitt Romney has been accused of leading fellow bullies in ganging up on an effeminate boy and forcibly cutting the boy's newly dyed blonde hair. This is only one of the accusations made by fellow students, both bullies and victims. Romney chuckled as he declared he couldn't remember the incidents. All boys, according to the GOP presumptive nominee, play pranks. All boys, Mitt? These kind of pranks, Mitt? Is that the norm for exclusive prep schools? Sadly, like Howard Dean, Romney has memory lapses, but laughs them off. He apologizes,..IF....indeed he was involved in such high jinx. IF? High Jinx? Again, the central question. Does the bully stay with the adult? If so, can we chance a bully in the White House, especially one who can't remember?!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Nice and Raunchy

Judd Apatow's formulaic comedies include The 40 Year Virgin and Knocked Up. The latter is perhaps the best of the bunch, combining all-out grossness with a basically sweet story and Paul Rudd stealing the show in a supporting role. Now we have Jason Siegal and Emily Blunt as two mismatched lovers who must constantly postpone their wedding date because of career and personal choices. Both actors are delightful, especially Blunt, who shows considerable range in both her comic scenes and in the dramatic crises. The problem is that the writers cannot resist jokes that often fall flat or, even worse, get dirty in a frat house way. The 5 Year Engagement could have been a sweet but salty comic romance, but the boys in charge can't get out of the potty.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

DESTRY RIDES AGAIN....and again!

One of my favorite westerns is DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939). One of my favorite comedies is DESTRY RIDES AGAIN. And my favorite actor, then and now, is James Stewart. Add a down to earth Marlene Dietrich in her best role and you have a true classic from the best year in film history....1939. More on that later. DESTRY RIDES AGAIN takes place in the fictional town of Bottleneck, a wild and lawless frontier town run by crooks Kent (Brian Donlevy) and Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich with her inescapable German accent). Called into to help the new sherrif, Destry (James Stewart) arrives with wit and charm and no guns. He is at first a laughing stock, but his good sense and calm prevail.

What makes this film really work is the growing relationship between Frenchy and Destry. It begins in one of the great fight scenes. Frenchy has won a patron's pants in a poker game and the loser's wife begins a free-for-all that practically destroys the saloon. Destry finally douses Frenchy and the wife with slop, and a new fight begins between French and Destry. All of this is choreographed with such dexerity and wit that it looks totally natural. Never has Dietrich been less glamourous than in her attack on Stewart. And never has she been more appealing as she falls in love with Stewart. Stripped of those exotic sirens of the 1930's (SHANGHAI EXPRESS, THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN), Dietrich exudes charm, especially in her intimate scenes with Stewart. As for Stewart, he brings his seemingly naive but smart appeal that would be his calling card for decades to come.

As for that unforgettable year of 1939, THE WIZARD OF OZ, DARK VICTORY(Bette Davis, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, STAGECOACH (John Wayne), GOODBYE MR. CHIPS, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (Stewart), NINOTCHKA (Garbo), GUNGA DIN, and the ultimate winner GONE WITH THE WIND. DESTRY RIDES AGAIN deserves its place in the pantheon. Rent it and enjoy!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

What were they thinking? Or were they?

The old saying "What were they thinking?" never goes away. A few current examples make my point. THE IRON LADY, which won Meryl Streep her third Oscar in late February, is in reality a mess of a movie and an insult to Margaret Thatcher, one of the great political leaders of the last half of the 20th Century. Instead of concentrating on her political career and her indomitable spirit, warts and all, the film goes into free fall almost from the first shot. True, Streep does a great Thatcher, but she is shackled by a lame frame story showing Thatcher stuck in memories and on-coming Altzeimer's. There is no rhyme or reason to THE IRON LADY, only Meryl Streep.

PBS MASTERPIECE THEATER just wrapped its three hour series of GREAT EXPECTATIONS, one of Dickens' most popular novels. Though true to the familiar story, this version skips back and forth between moving too slowly with agonizingly long close-ups and too quickly with hurried plots and a lack of character development. Beloved characters like Wemmick and Joe Gargery are barely seen. Some of the casting is downright strange. The star of the memorable PBS BLEAK HOUSE, Gillian Anderson plays the insane Miss Havisham as a dotty fourtyish blonde with a falsetto voice. Estella, as a child and an adult, is described as an exquisite beauty, but in this version, she simply isn't. Instead she seems clumsy and hardly refined by her French education. This is accented by the adult who plays Pip. The camera worships Douglas Booth, and it should. He is a professional model who looks as if he just stepped out of one of those Italian fashion spreads in Vanity Fair. We keep waiting for the slightest sign of life in this guy, but he hardly raises his voice. True, he's up against superb British actors like Ray Winstone as Magwich and David Suchet (Poirot) as the seemingly cold lawyer Jaggers, but maybe the casting director should be canned. Though beautifully filmed in almost gray and white, this new version of GREAT EXPECTATIONS disappoints on two many counts.

Also on television, AMC's THE KILLING has returned with two new episodes. Last year I watched this fascinating but frustrating series. The major characters were played by interesting and often unique actors. Though the first season ended in a story-telling debacle, I still had interest in Mereille Enos as the intensely glum Sarah Linden and Joel Kinnaman as her shifty partner. After episode 2 of the second season, I have formally withdrawn from THE KILLING. Why? Frankly, I can't take any more rainy days and nights in Seattle. I prefer Frazier Crane's version. I'm also sick of the Larsen family, who seem to live in an underground bunker where there are no smiles or even electric lighting. Who killed Rosie Larsen? Is she really dead? No more red herrings for me.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Good, Bad, Badder, Baddest

Sorry, folks, but in the last few days I have seen 4 movies that make me wonder about the future of movies (I always say this and then find a goodie).

GOOD: I was pleasantly surprised by the newest version of the Snow White legend: MIRROR, MIRROR, which stars Julia Roberts as the evil and also crazy as a loon Evil Queen, Lily Collins as the adorable Snow White, and Armie Hammer as the handsome prince who is also a klutz. The movie's style is over the top with fairy tale castles, magnificent but surreal costuming, and comedy relief from the Seven Dwarfs, who are as far away from Disney as possible. Though the film lags several times, it is witty and exciting enough to please family viewers. And, like THE HUNGER GAMES, the heroine becomes the hero who saves the day. Roberts chews the scenery with relish, and Nathan Lane provides some great one liners.

BAD: WRATH OF THE TITANS is the sequel to the messy CLASH OF THE TITANS and stars some of the original cast. Sam Worthington is back as Perseus, the half mortal, half god son of Zeus. Liam Neeson as Zeus and Ralph Fiennes as his brother Hades, two of our most distinguished thespians are back to pick up healthy pay checks for sounding godlike. As for the story, it almost doesn't exist. The gods have lost their powers, and Perseus most travel to Hades to save his father. The action is so illogical, the filming so frantic, the acting so bad....Yes, I am ashamed. I went to see it, even though I refused to see the first one. Forgive me. And I paid more because it was in 3D!

BADDER: The above movies are in theaters now, the next two we watched at home. For once, Betsy agreed with me about two movies in a row. MARTHA MARCY, MAY, MARLENE was praised roundly by the big critics last year, so I looked forward to seeing it. Boy, was I wrong! This is the story of a younger sister who escapes a cult physically but not mentally. It's a strong idea, but the execution is muddy and often confusing. The performances are strong, but the movie is so darkly filmed with close-ups of Martha that seem to last forever that I felt relief when it was over...wait it wasn't over! Like most French movies, it just stops in the middle of a suspenseful scene. @#&*^!

BADDEST: CARNAGE, based on the play GOD OF CARNAGE. Sounds pretty profound, right? Forget about it. The popular play has been adapted into an even worse movie by Roman Polanski. Filmed on one set that is supposedly a New York apartment, CARNAGE tells the story of two sets of parents trying to figure out why one son belted the other son with a stick and knocked his teeth out. It all begins in a civil way, but by the time the film ends, they have screamed and bullied, one has thrown up on expensive art books, they all get drunk on expensive scotch. And they are no closer to detente than they were 100 minutes ago. The only possible sympathetic character is Michael Longstreet(John C. Reilly) a hard working salesman who is truthful, while the others are deceitful and even despicable. Jodie Foster screams like a harridan in a one-note performanc. Kate Winslet and Cristoph Waltz as cold and snobby parents of the assailant try hard, but their stereotypes are over-whelming. CARNAGE is an effective title for this unlikable disaster.

Monday, April 2, 2012

But is it ART?

Last night on CBS's 60 MINUTES Morley Safer attacked contemporary modern art for the second time. Back in 1993, Safer didn't make any friends with artists, dealers, or collectors when he savaged artists like Cy Twombly, Jeff Koons, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, among others, with the help of conservative art critic Hilton Kramer (he died recently). It was all over-hyped trash, "the emperor's new clothes," according to Safer and Kramer.

Let me be frank. For many years I taught art history and tried to be objective about post-modern styles, but the more I saw in museums (I made a trip to NY every year from 1985 to 2003), the more I realized how bad most of the new stuff was and is. I grew bored with seeing stuff like a bunch of lumber and rope thrown in a corner, as if a worker had forgotten to do anything with it. I watched enough video installations with the same tired "freshness" that I grew to mistrust the medium as well as the message, if there was one.

So Morley Safer's second foray into the rarified world of collecting only emphasized what he had said back in 1993. But this time it was all about the money, the emptiness, the one percenters. Safer spent several hours with the hip crowd at Art Basil Miami, a major art fair that draws private jets from all over the globe. Safer interviewed artists, buyers, and dealers, all of whom came off as shallow, insincere, and from another planet. At first I thought this was deserved.

But then, after talking with my wife, I realized this wasn't just silliness. It was just dead wrong, even sinful. Forgive me for proselytizing, but the world is too full of hurt and need to countenance the kind of mindless greed and lack of caring exhibited in this foolishness of art collecting.

Friday, March 30, 2012

THE HUNGER GAMES....Action and Character can coexist.

I have always stayed away from dystopian novels and films. Only a few have really intrigued me. On film, Ray Bradbury's fantasy FARENHEIT 451 received a somber but effective treatment from French director Francois Truffaut. In a future world firemen don't put out fires, they burn books. One scene stays with us. A woman's library is burned and she steps into the conflagration raising her hands to the heavens and becomes a martyr for reading. P.D. James' CHILDREN OF MEN pictured a future where there would be no more births. The film version by director Alfonso Cuaron is one of the great dystopian films, a riveting suspenseful story that ends with hope for the human race.

When Suzanne Collins' HUNGER GAMES TRILOGY exploded on the young adult novel scene in 2008 it became a sensation just as the TWILIGHT phenomenon began to ebb. When I read a plot summary, I was horrified that a teen novel had a premise that was sadistic and violent. However, when I finally read the first novel recently on my daughter's kindle, I changed my mind. It had ideas, a strong plot, and something really unusual--a strong feminine leading character who is both vulnerable but also able to "kick ass," as the target audience might say.

And naturally I went to see the highly anticipated film version, which far exceeded my expectations. Director Gary Ross has cleverly reduced the actual violence through fast cutting and quick shots of the victims. He has earned his PG-13 rating, a necessity for the teen audience, and he has lost very little of the novel's drive. As most of the world knows, THE HUNGER GAMES tells the story of a dystopian future in which the repressive government holds a yearly competition pitting 24 young people between 12 and 18 in a violent game in which only one survives. The first half of the film is an emotional roller coaster in which the heroine Katniss Everdeen volunteers when her 12 year old sister is chosen by lot. Soon she and the male tribute Peeta Mellark are whisked to The Capital, where they are prepared for the the hunger games. The Capital has an eerie set design, recalling other fantasy films, especially THE WIZARD OF OZ's dazzling Emerald City. Oddly the sets and people in the Capital are bizarrely off kilter, emphasizing a society that lives only for pleasure.

The 24 tributes are groomed, beautifed, and presented to the public to gain support for their efforts. This scene looks back to Roman games and men and animals fighting to the death for the amusement of the people. And it seems influenced by reality tv shows like SURVIVOR and BIG BROTHER, where public embarrassment seems the lure. There is also a whiff of LORD OF THE FLIES, especially as the youngsters hunt and kill each other. The second half of THE HUNGER GAMES plunges the tributes into the wild (played beautifully by nature in North Carolina). Almost immediately 8 tributes are slaughtered, and Katniss must fend for herself, something she knows how to do since she is from District 12, which used to be Appalachia. And here, to avoid spoiling the rest of the film, I must stop.

Jennifer Lawrence, who won a Best Actress Nomination for the Appalachian drama WINTER BONE, gives Katniss a fierce, determined grace. Her best scenes are in the wilderness as she fights to survive and save the wounded Peeta. What seems most important in THE HUNGER GAMES is that for once we don't define a hero as male. Katniss Everdeen is a hero for all seasons...well, at least until the last film of the series is shown.