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).