Saturday, August 31, 2013


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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 24, 2013

THE BUTLER, History within History

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

ELYSIUM falls to two new British series

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 9, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 2, 2013

Crazy, Lazy Lists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 27, 2013

This is not another lousy TRANSFORMERS!!

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 21, 2013


Every summer or so, we are lucky to get a respite from all the special effects disaster films. Usually the Brits do the honors, but occasionally America comes through (think back to LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE). This year it's THE WAY WAY BACK,           
a low key comic drama about a family vacation to a beach house owned by an obnoxious control freak Trent, played to the nastiest hilt by Steve Carrell). Steve is wooing recent divorcee Betty ( Toni Collette), who is emotionally fragile and just wants taking care of. Her 14 year old son Duncan is resistant to his potential new dad, especially after he sees how he manipulates him and his Mom.

But help is on the way. One day Duncan finds himself at an old water park run by some engaging slackers, and his new job at the park and friendships with his fellow employees change his life. It's wonderful to see young actor Liam James inhabit the part of Duncan. When we first see him in the back of Trent's station wagon he is hunched into himself and looks like Hamlet as a young teen, but Owen, a punchy, punny manager, pulls Duncan out of his slump and shows him the pleasures of summer. Owen is played by Sam Rockwell with a relish that takes no prisoners. Sure, he's a thirtyish adolescent, but there's real caring within. This is NOT the usual Seth Rogen or Adam Sandler approach. There's also a spot-on comic turn by Allison Janey as a tipsy neighbor. She practically steals the movie. You can't wait for to come back on.

There are a few contrived moments in the film, but THE WAY WAY BACK is a family film that deserves a big audience. It's funny without being crude, it's loving without being mawkish, and it's beautifully acted and directed. SEE IT!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

What to read? What to read!

Summer is the time to read; in fact, anytime is the time to read, especially for avid readers who like fine stories and stylistic flourishes. One intriguing novel is Meg Wolitzer's THE INTERESTINGS, an involving story that begins with a group of teens at a free-thinking arts camp. Their summers in the wilds include any artsy projects they choose, including extra-curriculars. The main character is Jules Jacobson, a decidely middle class girl who wants to be special. She's witty and is quickly accepted into a group who dub themselves "the Interestings," because of their upper class creds as well as many talents. The novel follows these friends through the next 30 years. While Ethan Figman grows up to create a smash tv show (Think Simpsons) and marries the beautiful and sensitive Ash Wolf, the shy but talented Jonah Bay whose life is thwarted by his childhood experiences flounders as an adult. And there is Ash's charismatic brother Goodman Wolf. You symbol hunters can do wonders with that name. The group sticks together, despite the large differences in life styles and wealth, and Jules marries a good but ordinary man Dennis. No more specifics, folks, because these friends go through some rough times, and they discover that though they may be interesting they're not always so "special." Wolitzer's ability to make an obvious theme more than just interesting pulls the reader through a complex but always compelling story. Some go off the deep end and recover, and some just keep falling. It's a journey well worth taking.

Colum McCann's new novel TRANSATLANTIC is reminiscent of E.L. Doctorow's brilliant historical novel of 1975, in which the writer places an upper class white family, a Jewish immigrant and his daughter and a doomed black couple in the events from 1910 to the entrance into World War I, so that the fictional characters intermingle with the likes of Harry Houdini, Jacob Astor, Henry Ford, anarchist Emma Goldman, the girl in the red velvet swing Evelyn Nesbitt, and many more.
TRANSATLANTIC is far less fantastical but just as absorbing.
McCann links seemingly unrelated events with the trials of an
Irish maid and her descendants. We witness, along with a female reporter and her photographer daughter, the first transatlantc flight from Newfoundland to Ireland; the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass' visit to Ireland just as the potato famine begins; and Sen. George Mitchell's trip to Ireland to conclude the Good Friday Accords. In a fascinating tour de force, McCann pulls all of this and more into a moving, transformative novel.

LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson is a tricky (in a good way) novel about a upper middle class family in the years from before the Great War until after World War II. Ursula Todd dies again and again but lives alternate lives until she is an old woman. Atkinson suggests that we have possible outcomes depending on our choices or elements beyond our control. The Todd family is an array of sympathetic (except for the oldest son) people with flaws that often define them. Ursula has always been the odd one out, since she seems to have a second sight about the future and others' fates, but rarely a clue about her own. Atkinson, who wrote the complex and entertaining Jackson Brodie mysteries, handles all of these themes with grace, empathy and wit.

I recommend all three, but TRANSATLANTIC is the top choice.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Minority Report....Me Likum Kemosabe!!

With apologies to any group that is offended by my above title, I would like to recommend THE LONE RANGER (or in real terms, THE LONE TONTO with his sidekick, a really slow white marshall). The critics have been merciless in comparing this one to last year's megabombs BATTLESHIP and JOHN CARTER. Nonsense!  THE LONE RANGER, though 30 minutes too long, is a rough and tumble western with enough chases, gunfights, train crashes, and laughs to satisfy 13 year old boys and action movie buffs in their 70's.

Much of the old tv and radio shows' mythology remains, but this version makes Tonto the real force, both for ideas, action, and laughs. Some of the jokes are cornball, but many of the visual jokes and repartee between Tonto and the Lone Ranger are hilarious. I was with a family audience on Sunday, and they seemed to love this new take. The plot is fairly loose, as is the geography. Did you know that Monument Valley is in Texas? Did you know that the first cross-continental railway was in Texas? Did you know that the Arizona Indian cliff dwellings were in Texas? Hmmm. Did Rick Perry produce this movie?
But I dither. An unscrupulous railman wants to use the railway to ship silver to San Francisco, he also wants to kill Texas Rangers and blame it on Comanches, and he wants to steal the heroine and her son for his own.

Why Monument Valley? This movie is in love with John Ford's THE SEARCHERS and even uses scenes from the greatest western ever. We have the raid on the homesteaders with the same sounds and red sunset; we pass the same rock formations again and again; and we have the Search for kidnapped white woman and child. Homage to John Ford aside, these are impressive vistas. And we even have the famous LONE RANGER THEME when the marshall becomes the MAN. There are train wrecks, bridge collapses, Silver carrying the Lone Ranger across moving trains, et al. And all of this is accompanied by humorous asides mostly from Johnny Depp's Tonto. So, if you're looking for a rousing good ride, take on THE LONE RANGER.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Dog Days of Summer? Not quite.

Not too many years ago, tv viewers were stuck with re-runs they didn't like so much during the regular season, but all that has changed. Networks and cable channels, as well as premium channels, offer summer seasons with some shows that seem far fresher than than the best episode of most regular season shows. Here are a few examples of current summer fare.

1. UNDER THE DOME, CBS, is based on a Stephen King tome, which it makes it perfect for an extended series. While I am not too high on King as a writer, I do respect his imagination, and I love two films based on his novels. One is the super-charged Brian de Palma classic CARRIE which mixes teen angst with explosive telekinetic powers, which are mild compared to the performances of Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. The other is the icily creepy THE SHINING, which manages to enthrall and repel the viewer. Based on the first episode, UNDER THE DOME wants to be both. A giant clear dome has dropped on a small town in rural Maine, slicing cows in half and causing the locals to act even nuttier than usual. The atmosphere and performances are consistently involving and sometimes surprising.

2. CROSSING LINES, NBC, concerns an international investigation team that pursues nefarious criminals across borders, which is much easier these days in the new Europe.  In the opening episode, an intriguing group of dedicated men and women pursued a crafty serial killer who just happens to have diplomatic immunity and kills his prey in exactly the same way in country after country. The dialogue was fast and witty, and the suspense ramped up to several strong climaxes.

3. PERCEPTION, TNT, is in its second season and stars Eric McCormack (WILL AND GRACE) as a brilliant neuropsychiatrist and college professor who is assigned to tricky FBI cases. To make it more interesting, Dr. Daniel Pierce has a long history of paranoid schizophrenia, which he controls WHEN he remembers his meds. McCormack is terrific as Pierce switching from engaging prof to Sherlock Holmes to illusionist.

AND...If you are interested in political movies, NO, the Chilean Oscar Nominated Film, is available on cable, Netflix, et al. It's based on the 1988 overthrow of dictator Augusto Pinochet by a free election. An impossible goal is accomplished partially through a modern ad campaign called "NO," which uses positive attitudes, happy songs and slogans, and bright rainbow colors, instead of images of Pinochet's many crimes against humanity. Gael Garcia Bernal, one of our finest international actors, portrays a savvy ad man who finds moral direction for himself as well as for Chile. The film uses actual historical footage and matches it with grainy, seemingly unprofessional home photography for a cinema verite feel.

Sunday, June 23, 2013


Let's just get down to it. I am not a zombie fan. After all, what do they do? They lumber around in a drunken stupor looking for fresh brains, they're terrible dressers and conversationalists, and they are so rude. Ever since George Romero's cult favorite NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, 1968, they have failed to impress me....until now with director Marc Forster's epic WORLD WAR Z.

How to approach a topic so overdone in movies and tv (the amazingly popular THE WALKING DEAD on AMC)? Forster and his writers have taken elements of the above zombie stories, thrown in a lot of CONTAGION, 2011, Stephen Soderberg's cautionary tale of a world wide viral outbreak with an all-star cast, and even more of the old-fashioned disaster genre from the 1970's (THE TOWERING INFERNO, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, et al).

Brad Pitt plays former UN employee Gerry Lane, who is called back into service when Philadelphia and many other cities around the world are overwhelmed by hordes of nasty zombies. Gerry is a true family man with a loving wife and two doting daughters, but he proves indispensable in finding a way to deal with this world disaster. The opening of the film is thrilling in a surreal and creepy way. Lane's family is caught in a huge traffic jam which becomes chaotic as zombies take over the city. The seemingly wild cross-cutting actually creates a true picture of panic in the streets. The film has many fine huge set pieces, the best of which takes place in Israel. The government has built the ultimate wall, not against Palestinians but zombies. Like other famous walls and fences in real life, it doesn't work.  Swarms (as in bees, wasps) of zombies climbing atop each other to scale the wall are impressively realistic.

I won't go into the eventual climaxes, but they are worth the wait and the pounding suspense. WORLD WAR Z is primarily a horror thriller, but there is surprisingly little gore. The portrait of Lane and his family (his wife is played by the talented Mireille Enos of THE KILLING) is tender and personal and believable. Brad Pitt carries the film with an intensely emotional performance. In essence, WORLD WAR Z is the surprise dramatic adventure of the summer, and not a super hero in sight.

Friday, June 21, 2013

HYDE PARK ON HUDSON and QUARTET, movies with and for adults

HYDE PARK ON HUDSON and QUARTET have obvious similarities. They are both lushly and lovingly filmed in sunlit vistas and idealized countrysides. They are both loaded with superior talent, most of whom are way past 50, as the AARP magazine is quick to tout. The big difference between the two is substance. HYDE PARK ON HUDSON, despite its dealing with FDR's meeting with the new king of England, has little depth for several reasons. First, it is based on letters and memoirs about Daisy Suckley, a distant cousin of the president, and her "friendship" with him during the last part of his life. The film shows their growing fondness for each other, as they take long drives in the country and eventually become lovers. Parallel to this story is the arrival of the royal couple and major questions about our nation's support for England against Hitler and the decisions to serve hot dogs at an American style picnic. Although pleasant and good to look at, HYDE PARK ON HUDSON suffers from a weak script and direction. Bill Murray tries to imitate FDR, but the wit and gravitas is missing. The rest of the cast is excellent, especially Laura Linney as Daisy, but they are adrift in a rather pointless comic drama.

Far better and more satisfying as a story and a film experience, QUARTET, based on a popular English play, is Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut, and the result is a delightful melange of nostalgia and comedy. Beecham House, named after the legendary British conductor, is a converted country mansion that houses retired musicians of various stripes, from classical to variety hall. On any given day or night groups and soloists are still practicing and enjoying their golden years under expert care. To disrupt this pastoral ideal, the home is in financial need so plans are made for a big fundraiser. Into this situation steps a new tenant, the opera diva Jean Horton, played with proper hauteur by Maggie Smith. She seems the answer to the performers' prayers, but she cannot face singing again. Another complication is that her long ago former husband Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay) would be part of their famed RIGOLETTO quartet, along with Pauline Collins as Cissy Robson, who drifts charmingly in and out of reality, and Billy Connolly as Wilf Bond, a rascally rake who provides most of the comedy in the film.

Needless to say, things will work out for everyone, but not before some wonderful musical interludes, dramatic clashes, terrific but understated acting, and some of the most beautiful natural photography, especially at dusk and night, that I have ever seen. The similarities between this film and last year's hit THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL are obvious, but QUARTET has a lighter, wistful touch and doesn't wallow in sorrow about growing old (and nobody dies). Cissy reminds us several times of Bette Davis' famed comment, "Growing old is not for sissies."
The characters in QUARTET embrace this challenge with wit and gusto. We should as well.

Monday, June 17, 2013

MAN OF STEEL with a little soul on the side

Superman is back in the fight. He's been around for 75 years in comic books, tv series, and many films. The 1978 SUPERMAN with Christopher Reeve seemed to be the iconic version. The first film of a 4 part series was an expensive, often beautiful evocation of the super hero and his back story. The opening sequence envisions the end of the planet Krypton and Jor-El's sending his infant son Kal-El to Earth with spectacular visuals and John Williams' magnificent score. For the first 40 minutes of the film director Richard Donner creates Superman's two worlds, one fantastic and the other sweeping Americana. After Superman takes on his Clark Kent persona, the film loses its sense of gravitas and replaces it with romance and comedy as well as action.

In the current invocation MAN OF STEEL, director Zach Snyder takes a unique approach. Through flashbacks and flashforwards we see the Krypton destruction, Clark's upbringing on a humble farm, his rebellious search for his identity as a young man, and his confrontation with the wraith of his father who spells out his son's duty to his human world. We also meet Lois Lane (a natural and delightful Amy Adams), who is no longer a cub reporter but a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. And where's our action? Well, remember those nasty traitors General Zod and his gang from the 1978 films? They're back and they want the codex that Jor-El sent with his son to Earth. It holds the only hope for resurrection of the Kryptonian race. One of the strengths of the film is its dependence on science fiction and fantasy clashing with American reality with spectacular results.

Naturally Superman must stop Zod in a battle that goes on for a least 30 minutes and is the least interesting part of the film. The antagonists manage to destroy half of Metropolis and its people, spoiler...Superman prevails.

MAN OF STEEL should be the start of a successful franchise of a strong super hero franchise primarily because of its star Henry Cavil. He's sympathetic, genuine, and looks like he's made of steel. As a female military officer says at the end of the film, "He's hot!" Russell Crowe, who often overacts, gives a low key and sensitive performance as Jor-El, as do Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Clark's earthbound parents. The film may flail a bit at the end, but MAN OF STEEL soars most of the way.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


As long as there are musicians worth listening to, good music will survive. I used to worry about the verity of this statement, but time and performance have allayed my fears. Every year more singers tackle the "Great American  Songbook," that rather amorphous group of songs written during the first fifty years of the twentieth century by such luminaries as the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, and many other greats. Whether it be Linda Ronstadt, Streisand, Willie Nelson, or even Rod Stewart, the great stuff is fair game and sometimes foul.

Singers have forged lively careers on the "Songbook," often in the styles of the masters, particularly Frank Sinatra. The talented Michael Buble has charm, good pipes, and style, while Harry Connick, Jr. has done even more for the genre with his big band swing versions of favorites like "It Had to Be You" and "I Could Write a Book," revived in the hit film WHEN HARRY MET SALLY. Movie soundtracks like SLEEPLESS IN  SEATTLE depend on the golden years for thematic links.
And then, of course, there is still the survivor and one of the best Tony Bennett, who like Sinatra, was the first to immortalize some of the "Songbook" classics.

Frank Sinatra's career began in the late 1930's when the big band era was going full swing. Every band had a vocalist, but no band could hold on to Sinatra for long. He left Harry James for Tommy Dorsey, and in 1942 broke away from Dorsey to forge a solo career. There were great songs for Colombia Records, a swing at movie musicals mostly with MGM, and finally a falling off of his record hits. By the early 1950's, Sinatra's film and singing careers were sinking fast. He made an amazing comeback and won a Best Supporting Oscar for 1953's FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, and he never looked back. Though his film career is spotty, his recording career is one of the most consistently creative and satisfying in music history.

Sinatra's years with Capitol Records began in 1953 and ran for 9 years. He worked with great arrangers like Billy May for upbeat albums ("Come Fly With Me") and Gordon Jenkins for more serious and romantic fare, but it was his collaboration with Nelson Riddle that produced his finest work. Most music critics have agreed with Sinatra that Riddle was popular music's most talented arranger. His 5 album masterpiece "Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Ira and George Gershwin Songbook", a veritable feast for fans of the Gershwins, Ella, and Riddle.

I treasure five Sinatra albums above all others, and Riddle arranged three of them.* "In the Wee Small Hours" (1955) is an intimate exploration of heartbreak, especially male heartbreak. Songs like "When Your Lover Has Gone" and "Last Night When We Were Young" demonstrate a depth of feeling and interpretation as well as a deeper baritone voice than Sinatra had ever voiced before. It's also one of the first concept albums, a idea that focused on a prominent theme unifying standards and a few new songs.

The two musicians followed "Wee Hours" with the triumphant "Songs for Swingin' Lovers,"(1956) a sprightly run of upbeat songs with driving tempos and lots of brass and sax. The standout here was the remarkable Cole Porter classic "I've Got You Under My Skin," with sneaky drug references, sexual innuendo, and love for fun all sounding semi-innocent in the inimitable Sinatra/Riddle style. "Old Devil Moon" and "Makin' Whoopee" come close. If you want to get happy, this is the place to go.

But, if you occasionally need to long for lost loves and youth, then the ultimate Riddle/Sinatra collaboration is "Only the Lonely" (1958), an album that shocked many of his fans with its intensity and sadness, not to mention some of the most beautiful melancholy arrangements ever recorded. All the songs are resplendent with Riddle's mournful trombone choir and restrained strings. My particular favorite is "Willow Weep for Me," sung with depth yet restraint.

   Whisper to the wind and say that love has sinned
   Left my heart a-breaking, and making a moan
   Murmur to the night to hide its starry light
   So none will see me sighing and crying alone

   Weeping willow tree, weep in sympathy
   Bend your branches down along the ground and cover me
   When the shadows fall, hear me willow and weep for me

The listener can almost see and feel the long graceful willow branches embracing the singer. This is not just pop music. It's art.

*The other two classic Sinatra albums are 'Where Are You" (1957, Gordon Jenkins, arr.) and "The September of My Years (1965, Jenkins, arr. Grammys for album, song, singer).

Friday, May 31, 2013

STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS, brightly 3-D color darkness

What a nostalgia trip, especially for millions of Trekkies! STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS takes us where we have been before but with pizzaz, actual character development, Klingons, Leonard Nimoy, and even Tribbles. When J.J. Abrams rebooted the franchise in 2009, he cannily went back to origin stories for the beloved characters and successfully reminded us of the traits we loved in the originals while avoiding slavishly imitating them.

In the sequel the action is virtually non-stop with all of the major characters in mortal danger most of the time. Captain Kirk has become a firebrand who breaks rules to save lives while Spock continues to be logical to the point of losing his.  There is a new and inexorable threat to the galaxy in the form of Commander John Harrison, a super-human who (SPOILER ALERT, even though true trekkies know he is the dreaded Khan). He is hell-bent on destroying the Federation. He allows himself to be captured and is kept in isolation on the Enterprise. Played by British actor Benedict Cumberbatch (yes, that's his name and he's the one who has made the new BBC Sherlock Holmes series such a joy to watch), this villain is mesmerizingly attractive in his unflappable English way. It's fun to watch Chris Pine (Kirk) explode against two Mensa superiors. I won't give away too much of the plot, except to say that San Francisco is partially destroyed, as is London. Don't worry, St. Paul's Cathedral survives.

There are loads of inside trekkie jokes and even a budding romance between Spock and Lt. Uhura, the most beautiful officer I've seen in a Star Trek film. Or is that a statement that will get me into trouble as when President Obama recently called Kamala Harris the "the best looking attorney general." All the actors imbue their characters with far more personality than I can remember from Shatner and the crowd, especially Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as Kirk and Spock.
The colors in this film are spectacular, especially in the fantasy version Jupiter and other areas. All in all, STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS is a real trip and a good one. It's by far superior to the other "summer action movies" we've seen so far because it has more sense, action, and real feeling.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Sunday night PBS brought two of their period dramas to the end of their seasons. One is the new drama Mr. Selfridge about a driven, optimistic American businessman who opens a classy department store in the staid London world of the years before World War I. The other, Call the Midwives, in its second season ended with dramas (births) and several cliffhangers.

I had reservations when I watched the first episode of Mr. Selfridge, which is loosely based on a true story, mostly because of the casting of Jeremy Piven (winner of 3 Emmy awards for Entourage on HBO), but his fast-talking glibness has become less annoying, and in the final episodes where he loses a few battles, he has shown a depth I didn't suspect. Harry Selfridge is a man who believes in himself and in making things work, particularly for profit. As he rises in the commercial world, he has the most successful store in London where stage stars, lords and ladies, and even the King of England shop. Unfortunately, Harry falls for a show girl who becomes the face of Selfridges and more for Harry. Meanwhile his wife Rose is intoxicated by the art scene, particulary the handsome man painting her portrait. Complications ensue until Sunday's episode in which everything comes tumbling down. There are many other intriguing plotlines as well and so many involve lovely Edwardian ladies and shop girls. If you haven't tried Mr. Selfridge, I suggest dvds or streaming. It's lovely to look at as well as a edifying look at Edwardian England outside a certain castle in the country.

Set in the 1950's in East London, Call the Midwives describes the challenges of a group of nuns and nurses who serve the poorest of families near the docks. The central character is Jenny Lee, who after adjusting to these harsh realities, becomes an excellent nurse and midwife, but it is not an easy journey. The series sports an array of women, from sprightly to nearly senile, cantankerous to loving. Their stories are intermingled with their clients, whose situations are often filled with pathos. What has impressed me most about the show are the actresses who play those clients. Each has been outstanding, wringing tears and laughter without cheap sentiment. I often wonder about acting awards, especially the Emmys. The actresses in Call the Midwives are far more capable than many American winners. Again, the first season is already available, and this second season should be soon.

A footnote: Mad Men. Sunday's episode brought the series a much needed spurt, primarily through an energy injection given to the butts (read that as you wish) of the ad guys and gals. Some went creative, some went romantic, and Don just went crazy. But at least it broke the malaise, I hope, of Don's continuing malaise!

Friday, May 17, 2013


At the beginning of Bahz Luhrmann's paean to Bohemia Moulin Rouge, a mournful poet types his tragic tale while his voice and chaotic images whirl forth. As Luhrmann's newest orgy of beautiful and profane behaviour The Great Gatsby begins, Nick Carraway is writing a memoir at a recovery home for alcoholics and hopeless romantics (he's both). The letters start floating towards us as they dissolve into the snow outside. From time to time we hear both narrators in voice-overs.

Moulin Rouge is a musical with all the freedoms of song and dance taken further than any musical in history. It works. The Great Gatsby is a serious novel, and Luhrmann, except for characters breaking into song, makes his film version work amazingly well. After all, what Nick discovers with Gatsby, Daisy, the big parties, and all the rest is excess. We are spared nothing, whether beautiful or tasteless. Daisy in her pristine loveliness or husband Tom's mistress in her garish red hair, dresses, and apartment (which  owes a lot to CITIZEN KANE's doll house set). When we enter Gatsby's music room, we're in the Emerald City of Oz with a gigantic organ that only a maniac can play.

If this were all, this version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's jazz age classic would have failed, just as a number of tries in the past, such as the Mia Farrow/Robert Redford pastel love letter from the '70's. But Luhrmann has given Gatsby life while keeping the love story and its complications intact. I'm not going into the plot, since most of us know it from high school or the ads on tv, but...SPOILER ALERT...for all the visual and aural dazzle, this version doesn't end happily either. Leonardo DiCaprio seems to grow into Gatsby as the film intensifies. His dream is to recapture the love of his life, the now married Daisy Buchanan. His opulent palace and his parties are there in order to snare Daisy's attention. DiCaprio gives Jay Gatsby a tender shyness but also a rough intensity beneath his chic wardrobe, mostly in pastels. English actress Carey Mulligan manages to give the impossible role of Daisy a charm that overcomes her spoiled and unhappy demeanor. Both Tobey McGuire and Joel Edgerton as Nick and Daisy's brutish husband, respectively, are nuanced in what could have been cardboard cut-outs.

In the most dramatic and climatic scene at the Plaza Hotel, Tom challenges Gatsby and tells of  his shady past, while Gatsby frantically urges Daisy to reveal their long love for each other. All of the principal actors display new aspects of their characters, including pain, hatred, and despair. But that's not all. We still have to drive back to East Egg and past the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg that overlook the Valley of Ashes where Tom's mistress lives. And, if that symbolism is a bit heavy for you, you can thank Fitzgerald and all those thousands of English teachers, myself included.

Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is not a perfect adaptation or movie. The use of 3-D seems superfluous and the shots of the mansions across the lake resemble Thomas Kincaide at his worst (or best). But he both moves us and almost overwhelms us with his ode to love and excess, one that resonates in our day with its failing institutions, greedy stock manipulators, crooked politicos, and ever-declining morality. Fitzgerald tells us through these characters that we can't relive the past, but that doesn't keep Nick Carraway from delivering the famed last line: "And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Let's pay to get bludgeoned.

Back in 1991 I saw TERMINATOR 2 at a local theater that had just been refitted with Dolby Sound. The first film in this series had been fast-moving, original, and emotionally involving. T-2 had some of these qualities, but the special effects, especially the sound, exploded beyond my imagination. When I left the theater, my head throbbed; I felt as though I had been pummeled to death. In the decades since big sound, 3-D, High Definition, et al, have hammered us action fans into submission.

The latest example of digital and sensual overkill is IRON MAN 3, as if we needed it. There are a few affecting moments in this two and a half hour explosion. Tony Stark is befriended by a sweet kid in rural Tennessee, Gwyneth Paltrow looks wonderful, and Don Cheadle is, as always, dependably appealing. The plot, such as it is, involves billionaire genius Tony Snark (aka, Stark) coming to grips with his own mortality, not to mention his inability to sleep, his usual sarcastic comments, and his addiction to work. When he challenges a world terrorist called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley, who was once known as Ghandi!), his world crumbles, literally. The Mandarin's forces wage a missile attack on  Stark's Pacific view palace, probably mistaking it for Barbara Streisand's digs. This is the high point of the film for action fans and for those who dig watching one percenters' palaces crashing into the sea. There's not much more to say, except that the Australian actor Guy Pearce plays a mad man with gleeful abandon and the closing sequence is twenty minutes and about as many iron men too long.

On a quieter and far more interesting note, Tom Cruise's new sci-fi thriller OBLIVION avoids most of the excessive pitfalls of IRON MAN 3. Earth has been devasted by Aliens, and most survivors now live on Titan. Tom and his female partner (Andrea Roseborough) work on an observatory above the remains of New York City scouring the environs for alien remnants. In 2 weeks they will join fellow earthlings on Titan. 5 years earlier their memories were erased, but Tom keeps having disturbing dreams about him and a beautiful woman at the top of the Empire State Building. And it's not AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER or SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE. No, something far more sinister and exciting, but to say what would give away the fact that I never understood what was going on then, now, or in the future. But that's the nature of sci-fi, right? OBLIVION is a visual treasure with breath-taking special effects that are so beautiful and realistic that you don't notice they are special effects. Of course, Tom still looks the way he did 20 years ago. At 50, he's buff, gets to save what's left of the world, and have suitless love with his partner in their posh swimming pool. I mentioned that recurring dream, and she's played by Olga Kurylenko, a French/Ukranian actress so svelte, so gorgeous that you and Tom will forget all about the plot.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Baseball Movie with Heart

Baseball movies are as American as ...well, Apple Pie, the great American pastime (once long ago), and Harrison Ford. And in 42, we get all three plus a biography of a true American hero. Based closely on the tumultuous events of 1947 when the Brooklyn Dodgers' team executive Branch Rickey hired Jackie Robinson as the first Afro-American player to break the color barrier in major league baseball, 42 follows a long tradition of baseball movies, some good, some inspirational, and some just sappy.

The most famous baseball bio is PRIDE OF THE YANKEES (1942), a moving tribute to the Yankee great Lou Gehrig who was forced to leave baseball because of a debilitating disease which now bears his name. Its greatest asset is Gary Cooper, who invests the role with warmth and dignity. Anthony Perkins gave a riveting performance as Jim Piersall, a talented but troubled player who undergoes treatment for a bipolar condition in 1957's FEAR STRIKES OUT. On a lighter note, Kevin Kostner starred in two of the most popular sports movies ever, BULL DURHAM (1988) and FIELD OF DREAMS (1989). BULL DURHAM is a warm, earthy comic drama about a fading ball player (Kostner, never better) mentoring a talented but wildly erratic young pitcher (Tim Robbins) who's also getting special training from ball fanatic Susan Sarandon (never funnier, never hotter). Sadly, the beloved FIELD OF DREAMS is little more than a sentimental fantasy that is so strained in Americana and baseball lore that it's difficult to endure without a slop bucket at your side. And there are many more of both kinds.

The film 42 could have been just another inspirational "feel good" sports biography. Occasionally it flirts with the typical aspects of soaring Americana music, beautiful shots of American flags waving against azure skies, little boys filled with awe for their hero. But it manages to balance these temptations with  earnest, heartfelt performances from Harrison Ford as the practical, crusty Branch Rickey, a perfectly cast Chadwick Boseman as the amazingly strong and patient Robinson, and Nicole Beharie as his tough and loving wife. Robinson must face racial intolerance from Southern bigots, opposing teams, and even his own team members, and the film doesn't soft-sell the hatred. Constant eptithets, bullying, taunting hit Robinson at every turn, but he triumphs through sheer talent and his positive outlook on life. The script is straightforward but often punchy and humorous, particularly Ford's lines. And the action scenes, especially Robinson's base-stealing skills, are a visual delight. Yes, 42 could have been another softy sports bio, but it triumphs by sticking to a great story that's told with guts and glory. This is history that needs repeating, especially in these divisive times.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Class and Declasse in entertainment

There's a delicate balance between achieving classy filmmaking and missing it by a mile. The new Masterpiece Theater series MR. SELFRIDGE is an entertaining example of the latter. Based loosely on the biography SHOPPING, SEDUCTION, AND MR. SELFRIDGE, this light drama focuses more on seductions of various types as American businessman Harry Selfridge successfully introduces the American model of consumerism to staid London in the early 1900's.

Filled with the usual excellent stable of Brit actors, MR. SELFRIDGE has high ambitions. It wants to be the next DOWNTON ABBEY. The problem is that the characters and plot developments are not as interesting or as deeply drawn. The biggest drawback here is American actor Jeremy Piven, a multiple Emmy winner for ENTOURAGE.  He lacks the verve, the pizzazz, and the apparent heart that would inspire London, especially its women, to swoon over him and his fabulous store.
On the plus side, there are winning performances from the women in the cast from variety star hoofer to Selfridge's long-suffering wife to a young lady sales clerk who manages to rise the right way. The costumes, sets, show windows are all splendidly displayed, but beneath all these attempts at classiness, there's not much of the real thing.

On a classier note, the Oscar-nominated Best Foreign Film for 2012 A ROYAL AFFAIR recreates a little-known affair between English-born Queen Caroline Matilda and King Christian VII's friend and mentor the German doctor Struensee. According to most accounts, Struensee was able to influence the mentally ill king to bring reform to the medieval rule of Denmark, rankling the court insiders and helping to bring about his downfall. Of course, his steamy affair with the queen doesn't help his popularity with the nobles either. All of this is played with proper spectacle, humor, and passion. Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (CASINO ROYALE) is a convincing reformist and lover, but it is Alicia Vikander as Caroline Matilda who dominates the film with her intelligence and beauty. Her desire for Enlightenment values and her desire for Struensee make an intriguing character conflict. A ROYAL AFFAIR is one of the more interesting costume dramas of late.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

ANNA and JOE.... studies in passions.

ANNA KARENINA, Leo Tolstoy's epic novel of 1874 imperial Russia and its brittle societal structure, has once again been made into an arresting and visually stunning motion picture, but there are key differences between the two famed versions of the past and director Joe Wright's unique vision. Greta Garbo's 1935 version mesmerizes the viewer with its shimmering black and white photography and its concentration on one of the greatest faces in cinema history, though Frederic March is a bit stiff as her lover Count Vronsky, and Basil Rathbone is far too villainous as her husband Karenin. Vivien Leigh's 1948 take is beautiful to look at and has better acting, but it also lacks believable passion.

I would like to say that the 2012 ANNA KARENINA corrects all the above lack, but that is not the case. Wright who gave us the beautiful and witty PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and the underrated but brilliant ATONEMENT has once again used actress Kiera Knightley as his muse. She plays the hapless Anna as a somewhat flighty, spoiled flower who seems to fall apart the first time she spots the dashing military man Count Vronsky (played insipidly by kewpie doll Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Both actors are far too young and erratic to be believable, but Knightley grows into her role as her world crashes down around her. Taylor-Johnson simply twirls his mustache or raises a condescending eyebrow. Far more believable are the supporting actors, chief among them Jude Law as the betrayed husband. Law makes Karenin a tower of moral principles but also a man who silently suffers because of his lack of feeling.

There are many aspects of this production that make it worth seeing, however. The sumptuous sets and costumes and the breath-taking musical score won 2012 Oscars, and deservedly so. Director Wright has made a concept movie that almost works. He begins his drama as a stage play and rarely resorts to realism. We see intimate scenes in small tableaux, as in front of a curtain. Or we see balls both from the audience level as a participants, and they are staged both realistically but also as choreographed ballets for emotional effects. It's an interesting take, but imagining Russian aristocrats dancing ballet at a ball is a stretch. The photography is stunningly sharp, revealing every tear drop or pearl drop in detail. There are several moments of clever satire in this approach as we see a bureaucratic office where the clerks stamp their papers in a mock musical comedy assembly line.

And here's the rub. ANNA KARENINA is all so beautiful and clever that it reminds of us of one of those Russian Faberge eggs, so decorative and delicate yet so lacking in dramatic depth. A tragedy needs adults and real drama. These are lovely people who hold our attention but not our hearts.

Any pretense of realism or character development is totally and aptly lacking in GI JOE: RETALIATION, a bombastic, overblown comic video game that continues the sci-fi premise that the GI Joe outfit is our key defensive element...UNTIL they are bombed out of existence by an evil cavil that has kidnapped the president and replaced him with a smiling double, and...and...I'm sorry..I really couldn't follow this plot or the multiple character switches, probably because I was being pelted by so many projectiles in this 3-D disaster. They include missles, shrapnel, swords, tanks, Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson, and Bruce Willis, to name a few. I do remember that the fine English actor Jonathan Pryce (Tony Winner for MISS SAIGON) plays both the good and evil president. As the latter, he gets to say one of the film's only good lines after he has seemingly detonated most of the world: "Well, at least I don't have to worry about that Climate Control Meeting next month." Unfortunately, that's the highlight of GI JOE: RETALIATION. The first of this franchise starred Channing Tatum, who is fortunate enough to be killed in the first ten minutes of this bomb.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

MAD MAN, SEASON 6....What, what...Is the Meaning of Life?

MAD MEN, AMC's unique series about the men and women of Madison Avenue in the late 1950's, 1960's, and now the end of the '60's, has entered its 6th and pentultimate season with its dreariest opener ever. Just when Don should be basking in his success and feeling blessed with his gorgeous and loving model/actress wife, he falls into a deep existential funk about the uselessness of his life and work (he could be right on both counts) and his own immortality (but not, immorality). Similarly, Roger Stirling, who jokes around with his psychiatrist, faces his own useless life when both his mother and his shoe-shine boy die within the week. He breaks into tears over the latter.

We know we are in pretentious territory when we hear and see Don on a Hawaii beach reading Dante's INFERNO. He and Megan (the perfectly cast Jessica Pare) are living the perfect vacation; at least, she is. But Don is having strange vibes from his army days when he meets a young soldier on leave from Vietnam and agrees to be his best man the next day. Somehow they switch similar army lighters, an act that will haunt Don for the rest of the episode.

Somehow what seemed fresh and slightly weird in the earlier seasons of MAD MEN seems forced and somewhat distasteful this season. Don's former wife Betty is now getting porky and acting more oddly than ever. She is fascinated with a 16 year old violinist and follows her to a flophouse in New York where a bunch of much too articulate hippies let her cook them a stew while they lecture her on her empty life style. The scene, like many, doesn't work; it just sits there while the viewer waits for a hint of meaning. One of the most interesting characters, Peggy Olsen, has left Don's firm, but her scenes don't amount to much either.

AMC has become the place to go for downer drama, whether it's zombies in THE WALKING DEAD or meth zombies in BREAKING BAD or the ad agency zombies in MAD MEN, nobody smiles much. Just a little light and levity might lift our spirits. But don't bet on Don as the one to do it.

But DARK seems to be the current trend in TV these days. Two good examples are BATES MOTEL on A&E and MONDAY MORNINGS on TNT.  Based on the most famous slasher film of all time PSYCHO, BATES MOTEL follows Norman Bates in his formative years as his quixotic and murderous mother buys a creaky motel with a gothic house in the deal. What could have been cheap and sleazy is saved by superb acting by Vera Varmiga (UP IN THE AIR) as Norma Bates and Freddie Highmore (NEVERLAND) as 16 year old Norman. The atmosphere as well as the plotting is suspenseful and moody, and surprisingly there is little far.

Lots of blood on MONDAY MORNINGS, a new medical drama that explores the world of specialist surgeons. Every Monday morning the hospital's major domo (Alfred Molina) holds court and either praises or savages his doctors on their performances. We usually see three cases in progress, sometimes in close detail. Keong Sim is the brilliant surgeon with limited language skills. When asked for a diagnosis, he says flatly, "He dead." The show occasionally slips into sentimentality, but it is worlds better than the always lame GREY'S ANATOMY and its ilk.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


What to do without me Downton Abbey? Well, MAD MEN is on the way, and, believe it or not, there ARE some intriguing shows on cable and even network tv. For starters, THE GOOD WIFE remains the smartest, most character-driven series on tv. It's a clever brew of past popular genres: family feuds, legal feuds, and office politics. At the center Julianna Margulies (remember her from the first two seasons of ER, eons ago?) plays lawyer and sometime mother of two bright, media-obsessed teens Alicia Forrick. She still loves her unfaithful husband (a perfectly cast Chris Noth, half charm, half sleaze) but is drawn to the co-head of her law firm played by Josh Charles. The supporting cast is terrific in creating multifaceted characters. For example, Alan Cumming, the terrific Scottish actor, loses all trace of accent and creates a cunning, sometimes comic campaign manager, while Archie Panjabi plays a bisexual detective for the firm, whose own story rivals Alicia's in intensity.

Another top-rated CBS show, PERSON OF INTEREST, has a hook that is beginning to tire, but the two leads are such intriguing characters that it doesn't matter. Michael Emerson, bringing his unique otherness from LOST, plays a multimillionaire genius who has invented a machine that finds people in jeopardy. He partners with a former CIA agent turned rogue who does the physical work (fighting, martial arts, bleeding, etc.). He's played perfectly by Jim Caviezel, whose dark, swarthy looks convey a world of pain and menace.

Recently a new show from the Sundance Channel has caused a stir among mystery fans who relished the strange darkness of THE KILLING and TWIN PEAKS. Elizabeth Moss (Peggy of MAD MEN) stars as a detective home on vacation in a remote lake area in New Zealand. And this is not your Tolkien New Zealand. It's full of down under rednecks who'd rather kill you than argue about it, a group of desperate women who have formed a commune to get away from such men, and a strange half-breed 12 year old girl who is pregnant and goes missing early in the story. Atmosphere is a dominating factor here, but the story has its own peculiar pull, and the acting is some of the best I have seen on tv in some time.

Friday, March 22, 2013


There's an odd renaissance of fairy tales in popular entertainment, and we're not talking about the old Disney classics. On television there are the dual worlds of fantasy and reality in ONCE UPON A TIME or the grimmer GRIMM or another much less interesting take on BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

In movies the trend gave us two versions of the Snow White legend last year: the comic MIRROR, MIRROR with Julia Roberts as a ditzy and vain queen and the dramatic and exciting drama SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN with Kristen Stewart leading an army against the malevolent and magnificent Chalize Theron as a queen who sustains her beauty with the blood of virgins. Not for the kiddies.

And this year we have a sumptuous 3D take on Frank L. Baum's classic Oz stories in OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, which serves as a prequel to the Judy Garland classic THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939). In this tale a carnival magician named Oscar is whisked from a black and white Kansas to the color-saturated Land of Oz, where he is expected to save the country by killing the Wicked Witch of the West (Rachel Weiss in the only interesting performance in the film). James Franco as Oz and Michelle Williams as Glenda the Good Witch don't have much to do but react to flying baboons and Winkies. The movie itself is gorgeous to look at, especially in 3D with set design and costumes that are the best kind of eye candy. But eye candy alone do not a classic make, especially if you are fond of THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Surprisingly, JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is a far more entertaining adventure which keeps the action almost non-stop and manages to build a credible love story between farmer boy Jack and the Princess Isabelle. Along the way we have impressive special effects, magnificent castles both below and in the sky as well as some comically repulsive giants whose personal grooming such as nose-picking, ghastly teeth, and cannibal tendencies will thrill the boys in the audience.  Newcomers Nicholas Hoult as Jack and Eleanor Tomlinson are attractive and ardent in their heroics and growing romance. All in all, a far better family outing than the rather bland OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

THE MASTER, a movie in search of itself

It is only fitting that Paul Thomas Anderson would choose a cult as his subject for the film THE MASTER. After all, Anderson is somewhat of a cult himself. The youngish director is the darling of critics who see themselves as avant-guarde, winning numerous awards from independent and foreign film festivals. Two of his six films are negligible, HARD EIGHT and PUNCHDRUNK LOVE (Adam Sandler starring), and the other four have many merits but often fail to coalesce into something meaningful or lasting. BOOGIE NIGHTS explores the seedy world of porn movies and made a star of Mark Wahlberg; it has several powerful performances but no lasting meaning. MAGNOLIA, on the other hand, may be his best film, providing Tom Cruise with his finest performance to date. It's an ensemble film about three sets of people striving for understanding in the San Fernando Valley. Even though it is somewhat pretentious, it's highly entertaining with powerful performances.

Many consider Anderson's THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007) as his finest work to date. This relentlessly dour drama about obsession during the great oil boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries won Daniel Day-Lewis his second Best Actor Oscar. It has no characters that an empathetic audience could possibly warm to, and that may be the point. Greed consumes them, costing them love and fulfillment. It's interesting that there are no women of significance in this story.

THE MASTER (2012) has been accused of being based on the life of L. Ron Hubbard and his religion of Scientology, but the film carefully makes the plot and characters so general that the comparison doesn't hold. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a sex-driven Navy veteran who suffers from battle shock and a lack of control. After a number of violent and senseless encounters, he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a cult called The Cause, who sees something in Freddie and makes him a member.What Dodd sees in Freddie is never explored. At first it seems that Freddie has found a meaning in life, but his personality cannot maintain any kind of lasting relationship. His "Master" may be compelling, but his message is murky and unoriginal. Hoffman is miscast as the "master" and is overshadowed by Phoenix's powerful performance.

On the other hand, Hoffman fares much better in A LATE QUARTET, a quietly moving drama about a famed string quartet in crisis. The group's leader, cellist Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken in a beautifully underplayed performance) tells his fellow musicians that he must step down because of Parkinson's disease, a series of dramatic conflicts emerge. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays second violin Robert Gelbart and Catherine Keener is violist Juliette Gelbert. Rounding out the group is Mark Ivaner as first violin Daniel Lerner. All are superb actors and even convincing as string classical musicians. What follows are affairs, jealousies, and betrayals, but the quartet and its music triumph over all in a satisfying drama that isn't just for classical music fans.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

A Diva and a Drunk, both on DVD

For as long as I can remember, the culture has used the terms "cool" and "hot" to suggest hipness, sexual attraction, beauty, effortless grace in entertainment, athletics, and personal relations. "Cool" is used far too often; it's tossed around as a comment without much meaning, as a complement on what one has seen or heard or done, and as defining word, when you've run out of words.

I just re-watched what I called and still call the epitome of "cool" in film. DIVA(1981), a French noir thriller practically defines "cool" in its story, its color palatte, its views of Paris, and its attitudes. A young postal worker who delivers on his moped is obsessed by a great operatic diva, who has always refused to record her voice. He secretly tapes a performance, an action which begins a whirl of events involving corruption in high places, agents ready to pay big money for the tape, a zen master and his young Asian paramour, and a second tape which exposes a crime ring that threatens to expose important people and comes into Jules' possession without his knowledge. Suddenly he is pursued by violent thugs as well as by the agents who want the vocal tape. During all of this the diva allows Jules into her life, and his obsession transcends vocal gymnastics.

All of the above may seem beyond belief, but one has to experience DIVA in one sitting to experience its mysterious pull to the senses. There is of course, the music, but there are also the settings, designed with such skill that they define the characters who inhabit them. Jules lives in an abandoned factory surrounded by his stereo equipment and a huge pop/surreal mural. The zen master and his disciple live in an apartment that seems to have no boundries. He sits in front of a huge puzzle gazing at one of those water tanks where the "ocean" flows back and forth. The color schemes here are lush blues and purples. How all of this flows together lies in the genius of first-time director Jean-Jacques Beiniex whose use of fluid camera work keeps us on the edge until he allows us to see surprise after surprise. I looked back at the reviews of DIVA. Rotten Tomatoes gave a 96 rating (collection of many critics), the New York Times gave it a rave review, and on and on. COOL.

And now for the drunk. The previews for FLIGHT indicated an action thriller like the old AIRPORT movies. Well, that's the first 20 minutes, which are harrowing and not for those who are squeamish about flying. After his passenger jet goes into a nosedive, veteran pilot "Whip" William Whitaker (is that a movie name or what?) flips the plane and manages to land it in a field, saving most of the passengers and two of the crew. But the hero soon becomes the target of a federal investigation about his being under the influence while flying. The audience already knows he is a drunk. He gets up drunk, immediately starts drinking, snorts a line of cocaine, gets on board and secretly downs two passenger size bottles of vodka. As the airline attempts to protect him and itself, he only makes it worse by continuing to drink  in excess and stubbornly refuses to admit that he is an alcoholic. Since Whip is played by Oscar Nominee Denzel Washington, we know his road to redemption will be a rough one, and it is. But FLIGHT is worth seeing for the fine acting, its not too subtle but necessary message, and, of course, for Denzel Washington.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Van Cliburn: An Artist and an Advocate for the Arts

Van Cliburn, the famed American pianist, died yesterday at age 78. Cliburn achieved his prominence and career by winning the prestigious Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958. He was 23 at the time and sparked a lasting devotion from Russian fans and jump-started an interest in classical music in this country. His recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 became the first classical record to sell over a million copies, and in those days there were no downloads or sharing. An LP lasted and usually cost around $12.00.

A number of factors influenced my lifelong love of classical music. Among them were both my grandmothers, who took me to concerts and the touring Metropolitan Opera company, and Van Cliburn, who was one of the few classical artists featured on the cover of Time Magazine. His recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 was one of the first classical lps I bought.
Of course, we're not counting all of Elvis's records, etc. from my youth.

During his career, he recorded more best-selling albums and was at times the most popular of all touring classical artists. The prestigious Van Cliburn Competition was instituted in 1962 by the National Guild of Piano Teachers and has become one of the top piano competitions in the world.

Quite a legacy for a soft-spoken young man who became a U.S. envoy for music, especially in Russia, where he returned and was received rapturously many years later. May his legacy live on in our love of great music.

Thursday, February 21, 2013


How many years in Oscar history have there been at least six films worthy of Best Picture? And, yes, there are nine nominees, but we are not counting DJANGO: UNCHAINED, Quenton Tarantino's latest blood-drenched revision of history. So, the race for Best Film is the most fascinating category. But let's play the prediction game and finish off with Best Film.

Best Actor: It's a foregone conclusion. If Daniel Day Lewis doesn't win for his incredible reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln, then we will all be monkeys' uncles.

Best Actress: Five strong performances (I haven't seen AMOUR with nominee Emanuelle Riva as an elderly woman facing death, but friends and critics alike hail her as sublime). Odds are on Jennifer Lawrence as a sassy but deeply sad young widow in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, but my choice is Naomi Watts and her harrowing, heartfelt mother facing the Asian tsunami and holding on to her family despite daunting odds in THE IMPOSSIBLE.

Who should win: Naomi Watts.  Who will: Jennifer Lawrence.

Best Supporting Actor: Amazing field of Oscar winners. Adam Arkin as a wily producer of a fake film in ARGO, Robert de Niro as a frustrated but loving father of his mentally disturbed adult son. Christopher Waltz reprising his role from INGLORIOUS BASTERDS in DJANGO UNCHAINED, the least impressive of the five. Phillip Seymour Hoffman in THE MASTER. And Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stephens, the radical Republican who chews up the scenery in a good way and politicos of all stripes in LINCOLN.

Who should win: Tommy Lee Jones. Who will: Tommy Lee Jones.

Best Supporting Actress: Another great field. But it's really down to two knock-out performances. In LES MISERABLES Anne Hathaway plays the tragic Fantine who is forced into prostitution to pay for her daughter's survival. Her version of "I Had a Dream," is one of the rawest, most moving solos in movie history. Sally Field is Mary Todd Lincoln with all her guts, depression, and love for her patient husband Abe.

Who should win: Anne Hathaway. Who will: Anne Hathaway.

Best Director: Steven Spielberg's LINCOLN is subdued and reverent history with great writing and acting, but maybe a bit too stodgy. Ang Lee's LIFE OF PI is a rapturous 3-D fable about a boy and a tiger surviving a shipwreck and weeks together on the sea. German director Michael Haneke's AMOUR and independent director Benh Zeitlin's beautiful BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD are worthy long shots, as is David O. Russell's quirky dramedy about mental illness. What's interesting here is that Ben Affleck, who directed the highly praised ARGO and has won almost every other best director award out there, is NOT nominated.

Who should win: Ang Lee, LIFE OF PI. Who will: Ang Lee.

Best Original Screenplay: MOONRISE KINGDOM will probably beat DARK ZERO THIRTY.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Tony Kushner's LINCOLN is hard to beat. He combines Lincoln's actual words and speeches with some of his own, and it works.

LIFE OF PI will probably take the lion's share of the technical awards: Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Production Design, Editing, Cinematography, Best Original (music) Score.

Best Foreign Film: AMOUR, Austria.

Best Costume Design: Either LES MISERABLES or ANNA KARENINA.

And finally...drum roll, please: Best Film. Is it a smash musical adaptation that recorded the actual voices as they sang (LES MIZ), a tense procedural about finding and killing Bin Laden (ZERO DARK THIRTY), a somber but often brilliant biography of our greatest president, a technical and thematic triumph about a boy and a tiger, a crackerjack political thriller about about saving  hostages in Iran (ARGO), or one of the other nominees?

Best Film: What should win: Life of Pi. What will: Life of Pi.

But don't hold me to it.