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.