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.