Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007 (2012)

Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007 is a documentary that explores how the James Bond movies have become the longest-running film franchise in history. It was made for television, though it got a brief theatrical run in Great Britain.  The purpose of the film was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the James Bond movies, which began in 1962 with Dr. No and ended most recently with 2012's Skyfall.

The film starts with a look at how author Ian Fleming, himself a former intelligence agent, created suave super-spy James Bond. Then the movie examines how Albert "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman became partners and acquired the rights to make the films.  All of the actors who have played Bond onscreen -- Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig offer commentary throughout the movie, although Connery's comments seems to have come from pre-existing recordings.

It was interesting to see the passion behind the films, and to hear about the troubles behind the scenes as well.  Connery left the franchise because he was dissatisfied with the money he was making. Lazenby tells why he was fired after only one appearance as Bond. There's the fascinating tale of how a man named Kevin McClory held the rights to Fleming's book "Thunderball" which led to decades of litigation. It was interesting to hear about the dissolving of the Broccoli-Saltzman partnership, how Pierce Brosnan got a second chance to be Bond after NBC surprisingly un-cancelled his TV series "Remington Steele", and how most of the powers that be did not want Daniel Craig to be hired as Bond.

The children of Broccoli and Saltzman also contribute to the narrative, as do a few of the Bond directors and other friends and relatives of the principals. Even Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton endorse Bond.

If the film has a flaw, I would say that it is too abbreviated.  I would have liked to have seen more film clips, some info on the onscreen Bond villains, and a little more of the supporting cast of Bond characters. That's quibbling though. What Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007 accomplished most is that it whetted my appetite to watch all 23 of the Bond films in chronological order.  I thoroughly enjoyed this overview of Bond's success. Grade: A-.

I watched Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007 via Netflix Streaming on April 1, 2013.

Fun fact: Broccoli and Saltzman's partnership was EON Productions, which was allegedly an acronym for the phrase "Everything or Nothing."

Monday, April 1, 2013

Bronson (2008)

The only reason that I watched Bronson was because I've become a fan of Tom Hardy in recent years. He had a compelling screen presence in films like Inception, Warrior, and The Dark Knight Rises. I stumbled across Bronson on Netflix Streaming and saw where Hardy won a British Independent Spirit Award for his work in this film, and decided to give the movie a watch.

I really disliked the film. It is a character study of Michael Patterson, a petty thief who always worsens his situation by acting out violently -- injuring policemen, prison guards, and fellow inmates alike. He adopts the name "Charles Bronson" after the Death Wish action movie star. He spends a lot of time in solitary confinement, and his extensive jail time far exceeds the penalty for the crimes that caused him to be incarcerated. The prison system tried to palm him off to the mental health system by pronouncing him crazy, but that didn't last long. Bronson became Britain's most famous -- and violent -- criminal. The only reason offered up for Bronson's behavior was his desire to be famous.

Hardy delivers an admittedly powerful performance. I hated the character, which always makes viewing a film difficult. The script was weak as well. The movie uses a device where Bronson addresses a fictional audience, and the movie audience as well, to punctuate the events of his life. Hardy is also the only actor in the movie with whose work I am familiar. His street-wise British accent was so thick that at times I wished that I had been using subtitles. It took real effort to understand Hardy, and in that regard the movie reminded me of Sexy Beast, though Sexy Beast is a far more interesting film.

Bronson is the second film that I've seen by up-and-coming acclaimed director Nicolas Winding Refn. In the fall of 2011, I saw Refn's Drive. I admired a lot of Drive, even though I stop short of recommending that film. Drive has a lot more style to it; Bronson doesn't have anything of merit in it except a fearless performance by Hardy.

Bronson was surprisingly well-reviewed, but I found it to be an excessive exercise without  substance.  Character studies rarely make good movies. Good drama needs to have a point, and  Bronson as a film doesn't have much to say at all.  It doesn't entertain, and the re-watchability factor for me is non-existent.  I don't mind violence in films where it serves the story like in a Quentin Tarantino movie, for example.  There's really no story in Bronson. I suppose it's an important film in the oeuvre of Tom Hardy, and someday it may show how far Refn has matured as a director.  Skip this one, though.  There are too many far better films to see. Grade: D-.

I watched Bronson on March 9, 2013 via Netflix Streaming.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976)

I first watched The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox on commercial TV during my college days. I hadn't remembered anything about it other than it was an unfunny comedy-western starring Goldie Hawn and George Segal. One thing I've learned over the years is that you can't really judge a movie if you watch it edited for television. So I was looking for something light to watch and stumbled on this title on Netflix, and decided to give it another viewing.

Guess what? The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox is still a (mostly) unfunny comedy-western, though it plays a little better than my mind remembered. Segal is a con man, and when he makes a big score, the bandits that he conned come looking for him to retrieve their money.  He encounters Hawn, a dance hall girl/occasional hooker who is working a con of her own -- she wants to get out of her business so she attempts to appear as a proper lady and is hired by a wealthy Mormon to tutor his large brood of children.  Segal and Hawn find themselves on the run as they travel to Utah from California. Naturally they fall in love. 

It's to Hawn's credit that she is so charismatic onscreen that she can appear in such a weak movie and emerge with her charm intact.  Segal is also likable here, and audience goodwill toward the two leads carries a lot of weight.  Ultimately, the script betrays Segal and Hawn as it is low on laughs and weak on plot and adventure. 

Melvin Frank directed this mess. He was much more successful in directing Segal and Glenda Jackson previously in 1973's A Touch of Class, which won Jackson a Best Actress Oscar. Here his work is heavy-handed and even amateurish at times.  The highlight of the film for me was Hawn's ribald rendition of a bar song called "Please Don't Touch Me Plums". It is funny, sexy, and strikes the tone that the rest of the movie needed.

The concept of The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox is a good one, and the casting of Hawn and Segal was smart.  It's too bad that the concept wasn't executed well. Director Frank should have scrapped his screenplay and either started over or farmed it out. Most of the blame for the failure of this movie can be placed on him.  Grade: C-.

I watched The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox on Netflix Streaming on February 28, 2013.

Angels in America (2003)

Angels in America is a six hour telefilm made by HBO that is an adaptation of Tony Kushner's mammoth Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It stars Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Mary-Louise Parker, Emma Thompson, Jeffrey Wright, Patrick Wilson, Justin Kirk, Ben Shenkman, and James Cromwell. Many of the actors play more than one role.  In fact, Streep plays an angel, an elderly male rabbi, the ghost of executed spy Ethel Rosenberg, and Hannah Pitt, a middle-aged Mormon mother who moves to New York when her son tells her that he is gay. The film was capably directed by Mike Nichols, who did a nice job opening the film up so that it didn't feel stagy.

There are many instances when Angels in America flashes brilliance. Then there are many moments with theatrical conceits that may have worked well on stage but are schlocky and cumbersome onscreen. The material also bashes people who don't promote the gay agenda, includes a lot of needless profanity, and ironically, is very naive in its theological discussions. Make no mistake -- Angels in America has a leftist agenda which I found to be offensive at times and patronizing at others, and it mocks traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs.

The heart of the story is really good, however. Prior Walter finds out that he has full-blown AIDS, which is a death sentence in 1985. Louis Ironson, Prior's lover, has trouble dealing with the disease and leaves Prior. Meanwhile, young attorney Joe Pitt, married to pill-popping Harper, is fighting his strong homosexual urges. He meets Louis and eventually the two have an affair. When Joe reveals his homosexuality to Hannah, his Mormon mother, she moves to New York but she and Joe remain distant with each other. Hannah meets Prior and forms an unlikely friendship with him. Joe is a professional acquaintance of Roy Cohn, a real-life personality that was vicious to suspected Communists during the McCarthy Senate hearings in the 1950s. He was allegedly largely responsible for the death sentences of spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Cohn, a closeted gay man, finds himself with full-blown AIDS and tells everyone it is liver cancer. He is haunted by visits from the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, and his hospital nurse is the fey Belize, best friend of Prior.

These plot lines explore a lot of important messages: the boundaries and responsibilities of love, the impossibility of being someone besides oneself, questions of faith and despair, the need for acceptance, what is right and moral, and if attitudes can be changed.  Unfortunately, Kushner's screenplay suffers from being overly ambitious and ventures into heavy-handed meta-fiction which brings the film to a standstill. The most successful of these conceits involves Cohn's interaction with the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. There is also an angel that proclaims Prior to be a prophet, though his gifts of prophecy are never revealed in the movie. Harper, Prior, and Hannah all have bizarre interactions with angels that really add nothing to the story. Prior even has a laughable visit to Heaven where he proclaims that God deserted mankind and is never coming back.

The performances are uniformly good, except for the angel played by Emma Thompson -- but that's such a seriously stupid role that I doubt any actor could have emerged unscathed from it. Pacino's Cohn is written to be a vile and nasty character -- and perhaps Cohn truly was. Pacino gives a larger-than-life performance, and somehow finds the humanity in the core of Cohn. Streep excels as Hannah, especially during her scenes with Prior. Harper, played by Parker, annoyed me throughout the film, though admittedly her husband had not been honest with her. Louis was well-played by Shenkman, though I found him unlikable. The best performances were from Wilson as Joe, Wright as Belize, and Kirk as Prior.

Pacino, Streep, Wright, and Parker won Emmys for their work in this production, and Kirk, Shenkman, Wilson, and Thompson were Emmy-nominated. Wright reprises his Tony award-winning performance.

Angels in America would have been a masterpiece had a third of the running time been excised (all the stuff with the literal angels and the demagoguery). The point that should have been more clearly made is that even in the worst of times, angels walk among us -- both natural, as exemplified by Belize, and unlikely, as seen in Hannah. The human interest story here is exceptional but the bloated esoteric material nearly sinks the production. The movie always kept my attention, even when it irritated me. It's a missed opportunity. Grade: B-

I watched Angels in America on DVD on March 18-21, 2013.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Holy Smoke (2000)

Holy Smoke is an Australian drama starring Harvey Keitel and Kate Winslet and directed by Gillian Armstrong. When the story opens, Ruth (played by Winslet) has joined a cult and moved to India, to the consternation of her family. Her mother travels to India to see her daughter and initially has trouble gaining access to her, but eventually Ruth sees her mum and tells her that she is happy in her life. Troubled Mum returns hone where the family makes sacrifices to hire American deprogrammer PJ Waters (Keitel, in a strong performance). Acting on Waters's advice, the family lures Ruth back to Australia by telling her that her father is near death from a heart attack.

Ruth finds herself in the middle of a family intervention and is then left in an isolated ranch house with Waters for his three-day deprogramming process. Ruth is furious with her family and Waters, and refuses to cooperate in any fashion. She finally realizes that she has sexual power, and seduces Waters repeatedly to destroy his credibility.

The film is very well acted by the leads.  Julie Hamilton, as Mum, gives a nice supporting performance. If only I bought into any of he drama. There are two points that I thought were particularly glaring. One, Ruth is a smart and independent woman. I don't believe she would ever get sucked into a Hare Krishna-like cult. Secondly, she never seemed desperate enough to seduce a man nearly 40 years her senior -- no matter how charismatic he was. (Maybe director Armstrong has a thing for Keitel? She used him as Holly Hunter's leading man in 1992's The Piano.) No doubt about it, Keitel is used to good effect here, but the age difference is as creepy as his moral shortcomings.

A third thing that bothered me is how Ruth, presumably an adult, was held against her will. I don't know anything about Australian law, but I question the legality of the situation - even if her family was behind it. Nor do I know anything about customary deprogramming tactics, and I suppose I might feel differently if cult brainwashing happened to a loved one of mine. The script wasn't strong enough to make me believe in Armstrong's interpretation, though.

And what is the title Holy Smoke supposed to mean in the context of this movie?

Despite all the annoying aspects of Holy Smoke, I never found it dull. Keitel, Winslet, and Hamilton are fascinating to watch.  I only wish they had found a different film to be in.  I'm sure that there is a good movie to be made about deprogramming a cult member, but this isn't it.  Grade: C.

I watched Holy Smoke via Netflix Streaming on February 19, 2013.

Me and Orson Welles (2008)

Me and Orson Welles is a fun "what if" look at Welles's Mercury Theater troupe and their acclaimed production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in 1937. Zac Efron plays Richard Samuels, a teenager who lands a small role in the play. He is thrilled to be among such a vibrant and talented cast, and enjoys working with the demanding but talented Orson Welles. Richard falls for Sonja Jones, Welles's pretty assistant. When Richard realizes the lengths that Sonja will go with Welles to advance her career, he manages to deeply offend Welles. The antagonism between the two threatens Richard's theatrical ambitions.

I liked the production values of the movie, and the name-dropping of acting icons of the day such as Joseph Cotten, Norman Lloyd, John Houseman, Martin Gabel, and George Coulouris. These actors were all ably portrayed by the supporting cast, with James Tupper as Cotten and Ben Chaplin as Coulouris being the standouts. Claire Danes seems to be having fun playing Sonja.

The leads are excellent. Efron brings a lot of innocence and naive charm to the role of Richard. Christian McKay thunders magnificently in his performance as the brilliant, temperamental Welles. He reminded me a lot of the real Welles, and he received some acclaim for his performance, including a Supporting Actor Independent Spirit Award nomination. Richard Linklater skillfully directed this little gem. I know that he's been around awhile, but I haven't seen much of his work. After seeing this and Bernie a few weeks ago, I need to be on the lookout for some of his other films. Kudos also go to screenwriters Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo for their adaptation of Robert Kaplow's novel. I don't know if the character of Richard was based on a real person; it seems that he was entirely a fictional creation set among the actual Mercury Theater company.

The form of Me and Orson Welles reminded me a lot of My Week with Marilyn, though not as meaty. Entertaining as this little film is, it doesn't seem to have any substance to it other than as a heartfelt paean to the brilliant personalities of 1937 Broadway. That's fine with me, because it makes for an entertaining movie night at home. Grade: B.

I watched Me and Orson Welles via Netflix Streaming on February 16, 2013.

The Bourne Identity (1988)

Long before any of us knew who Matt Damon was -- and Damon may still have been in high school --  there was a two-part miniseries of Robert Ludlum's novel The Bourne Identity. It starred popular television actors Richard Chamberlain (then King of the Television Miniseries) and Jaclyn Smith. I never had the opportunity to watch the original version and decided to rectify that oversight.

I read Ludlum's novel prior to seeing Matt Damon's 2002 remake, and it was one of the best spy thrillers that I've ever read -- not that I've read that many. I thought that the Damon movie did a nice job using it as a starting point and then going in its own direction without adhering too strictly to Ludlum's story. This 1988 version is a lot more faithful to the Ludlum novel. If it lacks the great set pieces that are included in the Damon version, well, it compensates by having a more logical plot and a little more detailed character development.

The plot is compelling. An amnesiac (Chamberlain) awakens from being nursed back to health from a serious injury. He follows a few clues to his life and seems to have an identity named Jason Bourne. After he discovers that he has mercenary-type skills, Bourne comes to believe that he is a notorious European assassin. While he is trying to get away from people who seem to want him dead, he involves the beautiful Marie St. Jacques (Smith), an Canadian attending a convention in Europe. Romance ensues, and the story becomes very James Bond-like with exotic settings, close escapes, action sequences, and a lot of globe-hopping.

Chamberlain's performance as Bourne is a little uneven, though he undoubtedly fits the character of Bourne as written by Ludlum much better than Matt Damon would 15 years later. That's not to say that I don't prefer Damon in the role because I am a fan of the Bourne franchise. Smith really isn't a very good actress at all, but she certainly is pretty to look at. This 1988 version of the story also had the smarts to cast some acclaimed actors in key roles: Anthony Quayle, Donald Moffat, Denholm Elliott, Peter Vaughan, and Yorgis Voyagis among them.

This 1988 version of The Bourne Identity has the better script, but the 2002 remake is the better movie, making use of great special effects and utilizing good casting as well. As it is, the original is fine popcorn entertainment. If I had seen it in 1988, I might have been quite impressed. 25 years later it is a solid telefilm but the action sequences are dated. Grade: B.

I watched The Bourne Identity on DVD on February 15 & 16, 2013.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Side Effects (2013)

I hate to throw out the overused term "Hitchcockian" in describing a film. Far too often, the word is used for any run-of-the-mill thriller, even when there's virtually nothing in the movie that resembles
any film of Hitchcock's. The last films that I saw where the word "Hitchcockian" could reasonably be applied were directed by Brian De Palma in the 70s and 80s (and De Palma was trying to emulate Hitch). Then there was the fabulous Bound from the Wachowski siblings in 1996, which was Hitchcockian in the grandest sense. I would also argue that the Coen brothers' debut film Blood Simple was Hitchcockian. That's about it - but wouldn't you love to see Spielberg or Scorsese try their hand in a Hitchcock-like film?

Side Effects stars Jude Law in the Cary Grant role, Rooney Mara as the icy female protagonist, and, incredibly, Channing Tatum evoking strong memories of Janet Leigh in Psycho (or perhaps Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill). Law -- in his best performance in years -- plays a psychiatrist who prescribes a new drug for the depressed Mara. Tatum plays Mara's husband who has just been released from a stint in prison. Catherine Zeta-Jones is a colleague of Law's. To say anything more about the plot would be a crime.

The script by Scott Z. Burns is smart and tightly plotted. Director Steven Soderbergh, who professes to be retiring from directing movies, has delivered his most compelling film in awhile, and it is only 2013 release so far this year that has piqued my interest at all. Side Effects isn't perfect, by any means. Soderbergh insists on filming with a yellow filter which irritates me, though the effect here is much less disastrous than it was with the recent Magic Mike. The character of Law's wife -- ably played by Vinessa Shaw -- has a bizarre character reaction about three-quarters of the way through the film that seems to be there only to heighten the drama rather than being believable. And as good as the film is, it seems a bit too low-key to me, though I'm not sure what needs to be done to jazz it up a little. All of the performances are quite good, with Law being the standout. Mara shows that her performance in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wasn't a fluke. Some of the supporting players include Polly Draper from TV's thirtysomething, and Mamie Gummer, who is Meryl Streep's lookalike daughter.

Soderbergh has a biopic about Liberace still to unveil on HBO this spring. He has delivered some compelling movies in his career like sex, lies, and videotape; Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Out of Sight, and Ocean's Eleven and its sequels. I really hope Soderbergh just needs a respite from directing and that his creative juices will start flowing again. Side Effects proves that there is still a lot of creativity still left in him, and I would hate for this film to be his theatrical swan song. Grade: B+.

I watched Side Effects at the Huntington Mall Cinemark Cinemas on February 15, 2013 with my cousin Zack.

Battle Cry (1955)

Battle Cry is one of those films that surprised me because it was better than I imagined. To begin with, I was under the impression that it was a black-and-white film (and that isn't a negative to me). It isn't -- it is a beautifully photographed color movie. I also thought this was a heavy duty war film, but 80 % of the movie involves down time during World War II. The movie also features a lot of female roles, which is unusual for most war films of the 1950s.

Battle Cry follows a group of men from basic training after the start of World War II until most of them return home in 1944. Van Heflin, one of the great character actors of the 40s and 50s, got top-billing even though his role is more supporting as this is definitely an ensemble cast. Heflin portrays a tough Marine colonel who trains his soldiers thoroughly and has them ready to be called to action at any time.  The recruits are an assorted lot and include Aldo Ray as a lumberjack from Wisconsin, Tab Hunter as a teenage boy-next-door with a girl at home, John Lupton as a studious volunteer, Fess Parker as a musically-inclined Texan, and L. Q. Jones as a southern country boy. James Whitmore is the sergeant who gets involved in the lives of the men under him. Heflin, Ray, and Whitmore deliver outstanding performances. Hunter is surprisingly good after a weak start.

The female cast members include Nancy Olson, Dorothy Malone, Allyn Ann McLerie, Anne Francis, and Mona Freeman. One of the film's shortcomings is that there isn't a lot of distinctive personalities between the women. Olson gives is the strongest performance of the bunch as the young widow who falls for Ray's brawny soldier. The movie also has a scene with Raymond Massey playing a general, and character actor Frank Ferguson appears as the irate father of Hunter's character's girlfriend.

Famed Hollywood director Raoul Walsh, who helmed many war movies in his career, does an excellent job with the sprawling cast and the layered interactions. Battle Cry is an adaptation of a novel by Leon Uris, and it is interesting enough that I wouldn't mind reading the novel someday. The cinematography is excellent, the script is sound, and the editing sharp. The soundtrack is exceptional; in fact, Max Steiner's score was Oscar-nominated.

There are multiple plot lines in the movie; some better-developed than others. The film is long but never boring. While it is certainly a Hollywood studio film complete with a heavy dose of patriotism, Battle Cry manages to present a wide array of details about Marine life. Maybe the film veers a little too close to soap opera, but it managed to keep me involved and its production values are top-notch. In fact, Battle Cry is one of the better war movies that I've seen that was made prior to 1960. It hits all the right notes. Grade: A-

I watched Battle Cry on DVD on March 6, 2013.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

House of Cards (Season 1, 2013)

Netflix hit a home run with its innovative original series House of Cards. All 13 episodes of House of Cards were available for streaming on February 1, and what a joy it was to binge watch compelling television drama commercial-free.

Kevin Spacey plays Francis Underwood, a consummate politician who is serving as Majority Whip in the House of Representatives.  He is ambitious, but when he is passed over as Secretary of State nominee -- a position to which he had been promised -- by the new President, Underwood plots his revenge shrewdly, with both bold and subtle political maneuverings and forays into illegal activity.

As Underwood, Spacey gives a sublime performance. He's smarmy, calculating, testy, intelligent, and ruthless. He is aided by excellent scripts, fine direction, and an excellent cast.  House of Cards uses a cinematic technique device where Underwood talks directly to the audience on occasion. Somehow, this device works magnificently in the context of this show. A lot of credit has to be given to director David Fincher, who serves as one of the producers. Fincher directed the first two episodes which set the show's look and tone.

I expected Spacey to be excellent in his role, but I was unprepared for the truly superb work of Robin Wright as Underwood's equally ambitious wife Claire. While Claire shares Francis's lofty political ambitions, she also has a career running an international nonprofit organization. Wright captures every nuance of the character of Claire. I always knew Wright was a solid actress but I never knew she was this talented. She and Spacey shine as a team.

Joining the Emmy-worthy performances of Spacey and Wright is Corey Stoll in a supporting turn as Representative Peter Russo. Russo is a likable guy who happens to have a drug problem, and because of that, he unwillingly becomes Underwood's pawn. It's a vibrant, force-of-nature performance. Stoll first came to my attention by stealing his scenes as Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen's film Midnight in Paris. After seeing him score so superbly in House of Cards, I can't wait to see where he will turn up next. It's been a long time since I've been this enthused about an actor arriving on the scene.

All of the other parts are well cast. Kate Mara plays a journalist who becomes an uncomfortable ally of Underwood. Gerald McRaney shows up as a billionaire friend of the President in the last couple of episodes. Michael Kelly does nice work as Underwood's right hand man Doug Stamper, an aide who knows most of Underwood's secrets. Sakina Jaffrey plays the President's Chief of Staff who proves to be a politician very nearly Underwood's equal. Michael Gill is very good as President Garrett Walker, a charismatic man who is not the sharpest politician in Washington.

On the insignificant negative side of things, the cinematography was quite dark throughout the series, particularly in the many night scenes. There was an episode in the middle of the series where Underwood received an award from his alma mater; that episode did not advance the story very much. All in all, House of Cards is an impressive achievement. The title of the show is a great one for this series as it always seems that the house of cards is beginning to fall. I am eager for Season 2. Grade: A

I watched House of Cards via Netflix Streaming between February 8 and 11th, 2013.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

In Silver Linings Playbook, Pat gets released from a stint in a mental hospital and goes to live with his parents Pat Sr. and Dolores. He has delusions of reuniting with his estranged wife who has a restraining order against him. He has trouble adjusting to his new lifestyle. Sparks fly when he meets Tiffany, the young widowed sister-in-law of Pat's best friend. Initially, Pat and Tiffany despise each other. Tiffany goads Pat into entering a dance contest with her, and along the way, Pat realizes that Tiffany has started to matter to him.

Director David O. Russell has fashioned a nice comedy-drama driven by character. As Pat, Bradley Cooper reveals depth and talent that I didn't realize that he had. Jennifer Lawrence, an actress of incredible range and beauty, is very winning as the young Tiffany and invests her with a complexity that is important to the chemistry between herself and Cooper. Robert De Niro plays Pat Sr., Pat's obsessive-compulsive father with gambling issues. He does a credible job in the role. Jacki Weaver is a quiet tower of strength as Pat's mother Dolores. I liked her performance a great deal. Cooper, Lawrence, De Niro, and Weaver were all Oscar-nominated for their work, and they are all excellent. However, Cooper is the only actor that I think was essential to the film. His performance is brilliant; the other roles could have easily been filled by other good actors.

The Oscar-nominated screenplay is very good, and Russell's handling of the material elevates it substantially. The last half hour of the film is as good as any rom-com that I've seen in years. I was really rooting for Pat and Tiffany to connect on both the dance floor and romantically. Russell seems to be a dream for actors. Three years ago, he directed Christian Bale and Melissa Leo to Supporting Oscar wins in The Fighter, plus Amy Adams scored a supporting actress nomination. This year, Lawrence and De Niro are favorites to win their Oscar categories. Russell himself was nominated for Best Director for The Fighter, and he was honored with a nomination this year for Silver Linings Playbook.

Silver Linings Playbook is really an unexpected gem. I wish more movies were this thoughtful, intelligent, and respectful of the audience. It makes storytelling look easy. It doesn't gloss over the mental issues that Pat, Tiffany, and Pat, Sr. face nor does it poke fun at those issues. It presents them matter-of-factly, and if humor can be derived from that, then so be it. I'm impressed. Grade: A

I watched Silver Linings Playbook on February 3, 2013 at Pullman Plaza Marquee Cinemas with my aunt.

Sports Night (Seasons 1 & 2, 1998-2000)

Sports Night was an exceptional workplace dramedy that originally ran on ABC. While it did last for two full seasons, it never gained much popularity despite an engaging cast, great writing by creator Aaron Sorkin, and a well-edited single-camera format. What a cast it was! Josh Charles played Dan Rydell and Peter Krause played Casey McCall. Dan and Casey were the desk anchors on a nightly sports show called "Sports Night". The show was produced by hyper-producer Dana Whittaker, played wittily by Felicity Huffman. The show's executive manager was Isaac Jaffe, acerbically played by TV veteran Robert Guillaume. Sabrina Lloyd played senior associate producer Natalie Hurley and Joshua Malina played the nerdy and big-hearted associate producer Jeremy Goodwin.

The ensemble cast was terrific. The rapport between Charles and Krause seemed like such a good, genuine friendship that when there were a couple of episodes late in Season 2 where Dan and Casey have a disagreement, I was left feeling sad and uncomfortable. Guillaume had a stroke in real-life during Season 1, and it was written into the show as Isaac's affliction as well. Isaac was the glue that held the show together. Malina played the brainy and slightly naive Jeremy with lots of heart. Huffman nailed the Type-A personality of Dana. If there was a weak link in the show, it was in the character of Natalie, who often got on my nerves. Natalie was an assertive and manipulative character who was basically good, but I often disliked her actions. Lloyd did well with the part, however

Perhaps the biggest asset of Sports Night was creator/writer Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin's scripts were excellent and his dialogue was smart with a rhythmic cadence to it. Sorkin stepped back from the show a little during Season 2, and personally I thought the quality slipped a little then, but Sports Night remained better than most shows even during that time.

Some of the ongoing storylines were particularly compelling. Casey and Dana had a long-simmering attraction to each other that they never acted upon. Dan was charmingly neurotic. There was a late night sports producer named Sally Sasser, played by Brenda Strong, who wanted Dana's job and made a few waves. In Season 2, William H. Macy -- Huffman's real life husband -- had a recurring role as an advisor who could grow ratings. The chemistry between him and Huffman was a delight. The one aspect that didn't work as well for me was the romantic relationship between Jeremy and Natalie.

Most of the cast had great success following the demise of Sports Night. Charles showed up in a number of roles before becoming an Emmy-nominated supporting player of The Good Wife. Krause had long rune on shows such as Six Feet Under and Parenthood. Huffman won an Emmy for her role in Desperate Housewives. Malina became an integral part of Sorkin's The West Wing. Guillaume seemed to cut back on his acting gigs.  I never saw anything else from Lloyd.

Sports Night started its run with a canned laugh track, which Sorkin successfully convinced the network to abandon. It hit a lot of character-driven comedic highs, but because it was character-driven, the dramatic moments were equally powerful. The life of Sports Night was all-too-brief, but for a couple of glorious years, it was one of the brightest gems of network television. It still holds up well, though frequent shots of the World Trade Center are now sad to see in its historical context. Grade: A.

I saw most -- if not all -- episodes of Sports Night during its original 1998-2000 run on ABC. I re-watched the series via Netflix Streaming during January and February 2013.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Fearless 2012 Oscar Hopes and Predictions

Well, the Really Big Show is Sunday night. I thought I'd weigh in a couple of days early since I'm having trouble sleeping  tonight and time will be at a premium from now until Oscar night.  Here are my predictions with a little random reasoning as well as what I hope to see crowned the winner in each category.

1. Best Picture
            Prediction: Argo. I held out for Lincoln up until a few days ago, but the drumbeat for Argo is just too loud.  I haven't seen Amour, but I think the nominated films for Best Picture are a classy lot.An Argo win is not undeserved, even if I did prefer two or three of the other nominees.

            Hope: Lincoln.  Smart and brilliant.

2. Best Director:
          Prediction: Steven Spielberg, Lincoln. Honestly, with Kathryn Bigelow, Ben Affleck, and Quentin Tarantino out of the running, the other nominees pale in comparison to Spielberg's work this year.

        Hope: Steven Spielberg, Lincoln. No other director has made more films that I truly love.  And he deserves his win here.

3. Best Actor:
        Prediction: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln. Day-Lewis will join that rarefied group of performers with three Oscars. And he will be the only one with three Best Actor statuettes.I thought Bradley Cooper's and Denzel Washington's nominations were richly deserved.  I haven't seen The Master yet.

       Hope: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln. He was exactly the Lincoln that I always envisioned.
4. Best Actress:
       Prediction: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook. She's quite good, but I'm not convinced that she was the only one who could play the role. I liked her chemistry with Bradley Cooper. A win by Emmanuelle Riva for Amour wouldn't surprise me as Lawrence should have many more nominations ahead of her. Haven't seen Amour or The Impossible.

      Hope: Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty. Wow, she's good.

5. Best Supporting Actor:
      Prediction: Robert De Niro. Silver Linings Playbook. De Niro does a good job, but there's nothing special about the role or the performance. He campaigned hard, he's revered among actors, Harvey Weinstein has been whispering to the Academy on his behalf, and it has been 31 years since his last win. Look for him to also join the "3 Oscar" club of actors. He's unbeatable.   

      Hope: Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln. He's a scene-stealing charmer. I also loved Christoph Waltz's performance in Django Unchained, but it is really a lead performance.

6. Best Supporting Actress:
        Prediction: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables.  Yes, she sings "I Dreamed a Dream" to perfection. But should an Oscar be awarded for simply nailing a song? I won't complain about her win though as I like her a great deal and she REALLY nailed that song.

      Hope: Sally Field, Lincoln. Here is a supporting performance with depth and complexity. But the Academy doesn't really, really like her  enough to give her a 3-peat. I haven't seen The Sessions.

7. Best Original Screenplay
        Prediction: Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty. Tarantino might squeak in with Django Unchained, even though it's not his best script.

        Hope: Zero Dark Thirty

8.  Adapted Screenplay.
       Prediction: Chris Terrio, Argo.  Terrio will be a beneficiary of the Argo Express.

       Hope: Tony Kushner, Lincoln. Kushner will be robbed.

9.  Best Animated Feature
       Prediction: Brave.  I haven't seen any of these, but I doubt the Academy will resist a plucky heroine.

       Hope: Frankenweenie looked like the one I would like best.

10. Best Foreign Film.
       Prediction: Amour. There is no real competition.

       Hope: Kon-Tiki is the one that I most want to see.

11.  Cinematography:
       Prediction: Life of Pi. Even if it is CGI.

       Hope: Skyfall.  Exquisite cinematography, but I don't see the Academy giving such a prestigious award to a Bond film -- no matter how deserving.

12.  Production Design
         Prediction: Life of Pi. Those supposedly in the know are selecting Anna Karenina here, but did enough of the Academy see that film?

        Hope: Lincoln. Yeah, I know. I have a theme going.

13.  Costumes
       Prediction: Les Miserables, even though Anna Karenina is getting a lot of talk here too.

       Hope: Of what I've seen, I thought the costuming in Lincoln was great.

14.  Makeup and Hairstyling
       Hope and prediction: Les Miserables.  I hope The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey doesn't win.

15.  Original score
        Prediction: Life of Pi seems to be the favorite -- though I can't remember the score.

        Hope: Skyfall did it for me.

16.  Best Song
       Hope and prediction: Skyfall will become the first Bond theme song to win an Oscar. There is no real competition.

17.  Editing
       Hope and prediction: Argo.  Here is where Argo is the unquestioned champ.

18. Sound mixing
      Hope and prediction: Les Miserables. The way the singing was filmed was incredible.

19. Sound editing
      Hope and prediction: Zero Dark Thirty is my choice, though any of the nominees except Argo are deserving

20. Visual effects
      Hope and prediction: Life of Pi. Is there any competition?

21.  Documentary feature
      Hope and prediction.  Searching for Sugar Man seems to be the audience favorite, though a win by The Gatekeepers wouldn't surprise me.

22. Documentary short subject
      Hope and prediction: I've heard good things about Inocente.

23. Animated short.
      Hope and prediction: For the first time ever, I've seen all 5 of these nominees before the Oscar telecast.  Paperman is the absolute best. I also enjoyed Adam and Dog.

24. Live action short
     Hope and prediction: Death of a Shadow has the best title.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Magic Mike (2012)

There can be really good movies about seedy subjects. Several years ago, Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights looked at the porn industry and we viewers were treated to a fascinating look at a group of loners who formed a quasi-family that just happened to be in the business of making adult films. So when Magic Mike opened last summer to good reviews, I was optimistic that the film might have something to say.

I was wrong about that. The plot of Magic Mike could have been lifted from Beverly Hills 90210 and placed in the world of male strippers. Alex Pettyfer plays Adam, a 19-year old with a history of trashing his life. He has moved to Tampa to crash on his sister Brooke's couch while he looks for a job that he can tolerate. Adam meets Mike, a would-be entrepreneur who also happens to be the star attraction at a male strip club owned by the charismatic businessman Dallas. Mike gets Adam to help him rope in customers for the strip show, then brings him to Dallas's club. Dallas sees some raw talent in Adam and trains him to strip. Mike becomes interested in Brooke, who doesn't see stripping as a viable life choice, particularly when Adam begins to be seduced by the sex and drugs that are around.

If the acting had been better, or the script more intelligent, or some of the director's choices better, I could have overlooked the simplistic plot. Pettyfer has no screen presence, which is bad for a movie that riffs on A Star is Born. Cody Horn looks nice but shows no particular talent in her thankless role of Brooke. Matthew McConaughey received a lot of acclaim -- and a handful of critic's awards -- for his role as Dallas. He had some good scenes, but I thought the character seemed like McConaughey was spoofing himself. There is a scene near the end of the movie though where Dallas's true colors come through and he appears old and mean like a decaying pretty boy. I have to hand it to him -- he deglamorized himself powerfully there. (Good thing the rest of his scenes played up his status as a sex symbol!).

Magic Mike is supposedly loosely based on the short-lived exotic dancing career of Channing Tatum, who plays Mike.  Tatum gives the best performance in the film, though the role is so poorly written that I was never sure until the movie was almost over if Mike was a good character or if he had some ulterior motive. It turns out that Mike was just growing up and the lure of exotic dancing was beginning to pale. Mike wanted to make something better out of his life. As a 30-year old dancer, Mike is a little old for a coming-of-age story, but that is essentially all that Magic Mike is.

Steven Soderbergh directed this puerile film and loaded it with lots of prurient elements.  Generally, Soderbergh's films are meatier than this (no pun intended!).  For some unfathomable reason, Soderbergh chose to bathe his film with a yellow-tinted lens which cast the whole film in a sickly-looking glow and made the skin tones look mostly orange. The film seems quickly cobbled together to me, which may have something to do with Soderbergh trying to retire from directing by January 2013. The movie would have also been better if the other strippers were given any sort of individual personalities.  One of them is Adam Rodriguez from TV's CSI: Miami, but he isn't given much to do.

I guess I expected more from Soderbergh than I got in Magic Mike, but I'm not sure what I expected out of a movie about male strippers.  I do hope that Soderbergh's retirement is short-lived though, because most of his films are a lot better than this mess.  Grade: B-.

I watched Magic Mike on DVD on February 6, 2013.

Earthly Possessions (1999)

Anne Tyler is one of my favorite contemporary authors. I love how she comments on society through humor and quirky characterizations. The only film that I had previously seen that adapted one of her novels to film was The Accidental Tourist, and that turned out surprisingly well. Earthly Possessions is an HBO adaptation of one of Tyler's novels from the first third of her career. I haven't read it, but most of Tyler's books seem to successfully lend themselves to cinematic interpretation.

Earthly Possessions stars Susan Sarandon as Charlotte Emory, a pastor's wife dissatisfied with her marriage. On the day that Charlotte decides to leave her husband Zach, she goes to the bank to withdraw money to make her move. While there, the bank is robbed. The robbery is foiled but not before the young would-be robber takes Charlotte as hostage. The robber is identified as Jake Simms, Jr. While the chatty Charlotte is on the run with Jake, she discovers that he's basically a good kid who has made some bad decisions in his life. She also finds herself attracted to him and the excitement that is now in her life. Eventually, she realizes that shes not cut out for a life of adventure.

I enjoyed the interplay between Sarandon and Stephen Dorff, who plays Jake. Both are excellent actors who inhabit the skins of their characters well, even if I do think that Sarandon is too smart an actress to be completely believable as a partial ditz. Dorff invests Jake with frustration, desperation, charm, and sexiness. It's a full-fledged performance that is so good that I wonder why he isn't a bigger star. Jay O. Sanders's role as Zach seems to be underwritten to me. Zach seems boorish at times and decent at others -- it makes me wonder if the marriage problems with Charlotte don't have more to do with her dissatisfaction. More successful is Elizabeth Moss (Peggy on TV's Mad Men) who is vibrant and optimistic as Jake's pregnant teenage girlfriend Mindy. Other cast members who are seen quickly in the film include Margo Martindale as the bus station ticket seller, Marge Redmond (Sister Jacqueline on TV's The Flying Nun) as a sour bank customer, and Alice Drummond as a high strung elderly woman whose car is commandeered by Jake in an escape attempt.

The movie is always fun to watch, but it really isn't constructed well dramatically. There are a lot of coincidences in the story, and the resolution is way too pat and easy for the seriousness of the events that have transpired onscreen. Furthermore, Charlotte is a character who never learned to drive and has never been out of her hometown. I'm sure there are people like that, but Sarandon has way too much pizazz and natural curiosity to effectively nail the character. Kathy Bates might have been a better casting choice. The movie's concerns are too serious to be sustained by the lighthearted techniques that director James Lapine uses in the film, such as occasional faux-documentary commentary by minor characters that Charlotte and Jake have encountered. Earthly Possessions could have easily been just as successful as a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie production. Grade:

I watched Earthly Possessions on DVD on February 4, 2013.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

I love movies, I really do.  And I try to embrace all types of movies and come to them with minimal expectations or pre-conceived ideas about them.  I've been richly rewarded over the years for being open-minded about some films that I thought would be dull or stuffy or not germane to my life. A lot of these movies were foreign or independent films, and my life is richer because I gave them a chance.

But try as I might, sometimes the appreciation of a film depends on the mood you are in when you see it, or the age you are, or where you are in life.  And I don't know what frame of mind I would have to be in to have really WANTED to see Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Even less than Life of Pi, I had zero desire to see this critically acclaimed movie. I have no particular problem with films set in backwoods Louisiana.  I have no issue with films about people of other races than me or those who live in impoverished cultures. But, possibly to my shame, I just can't get excited about movies from the perspective of very young girls. It's just not me; I don't care for slasher films either.

And so had Beasts of the Southern Wild not been nominated for a handful of major Oscars, I don't know when I would have searched this film out. Since our date with the 2012 Oscars is fast approaching, I decided to "get this Best Picture nominee out of the way". That means that I approached it like a required homework assignment, which is never the best way to view a movie.

The film is about six year old Hushpuppy, a precocious and smart child who lives in abject poverty in the swamps outside of New Orleans with her father Wink. Wink has a habit of drinking way too much and leaving Hushpuppy to fend for herself so often that she is always wondering when her daddy will return.  While Hushpuppy is extremely resourceful, she is always concerned that her world will be irrevocably torn asunder.  This fear is represented in her mind by melting polar icecaps cascading into the sea and visions of vicious giant animals released to run rampant over her community.

Hushpuppy and Wink live in a community known as the Bathtub, so named because it sinks low outside the levee system of southern Louisiana and can fill with flood water during bad storms.  The people of the community have cobbled together homes, boats, and rafts in order to survive any eventual disaster. The community also looks after each other in their own way.

The flood hits the Bathtub, and the community struggles to survive.  Social workers try to evacuate the residents, but they resist going to the FEMA camps.  Hushpuppy also has to face the possible loss of her beloved father, but she does so with strong will and fierce bravery.

Given the "controversy" that struck fellow Best Picture nominee Zero Dark Thirty over its torture scenes, I'm surprised there wasn't a flap that Hushpuppy was living in an abusive situation.  Her home was filthy, her father was often absent, and then drunk when he was around, and he could yell at or slap Hushpuppy whenever he thought the situation warranted it.  I found their relationship to be functional, however. There was a lot of love between them, and Wink did his best to teach Hushpuppy survival skills.

I've seen both Hushpuppy and Quvenzhane Wallis, the young actress who portrays her, described as a "force of nature". The phrase fits the role. Wallis carries the film on her young shoulders surprisingly well. I might be wrong, but I feel this is a performance that was molded by the director as opposed to being an interpretation of the character Hushpuppy by Wallis. With this role, Wallis became the youngest person ever nominated for an acting Oscar. Did she deserve it?  I would say no. She's definitely charismatic in the role and it appears to have been a weak year for leading ladies onscreen, but I really saw no practice of the craft of acting.  There are strong advocates for Wallis's performance out in the movie-watching world, and I will concede that my opinion may be in the minority here because Hushpuppy is always fascinating.

Dwight Henry is another non-actor who scores in the film as Hushpuppy's father Wink.He does seem to be a natural, but I've read where he intends to go back to his business as a baker after Beasts of the Southern Wild runs its course.

I appreciate the artistry of Benh Zeitlin's direction. He created the community of the Bathtub with great vision and outstanding polish for a first film.  It's an excellent job, but do I believe that he deserved his Best Director Oscar nomination?  Well, no -- not at the expense of the unnominated directors Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty), Ben Affleck (Argo), or Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained).  I am eager to see where Zeitlin's career goes from here, however.  Besides Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress, Beasts of the Southern Wild was Oscar-nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.

One of my important criteria in evaluating a film is its "rewatchability factor".  A film can be technically excellent but if it doesn't have a strong chance of me rewatching it someday just because I want to, I'm never going to consider it a great film. Thus despite all the things I admire about the film, and the richness of some aspects that will stick with me for a long time, I sort of doubt that I will ever revisit the Bathtub. Beasts of the Southern Wild was worth a viewing, but I didn't love it.  Grade: B.

I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild on DVD on February 1, 2013.

Harry and Tonto (1974)

The Best Actor Oscar nominees for 1974 included Albert Finney for Murder on the Orient Express, Dustin Hoffman for Lenny, Jack Nicholson for Chinatown, and Al Pacino for The Godfather Part II. The winner was Art Carney, immortalized as the character Ed Norton on TV's The Honeymooners, for Harry and Tonto. Carney's win was not undeserved, even if Pacino and Nicholson each delivered performances among my favorite EVER. If I voted, I'd still go with Pacino by a hair over Nicholson, but that shouldn't detract from the superb work by Carney in this wonderful film

Harry Coombes (Carney) is a retired teacher and widower in his 70s. When he is forced to leave his apartment because the building is going to be demolished, he goes to live with his oldest son's family. Those living arrangements don't work out either, so Harry hits the road with Tonto to visit his other children.  He encounters friends both new and old along the way.

Harry and Tonto is a film filled with lovely moments. Director Paul Mazursky has fashioned a gentle movie with many gorgeous shots. Mazursky clearly loves people as he finds extras with fascinating faces to put onscreen.  Some of the scenes are amazing, and the script is excellent.  Harry's friendship with Jacob Rivetowski (nicely played by veteran thespian Herbert Berghof) before he leaves New York is richly rendered. The scenes where Harry re-connects with his daughter Shirley, a thrice-divorced bookstore owner on Chicago. speak volumes on life.  Ellen Burstyn creates a marvelously-nuanced Shirley in just a few lines. 

The best part of the film finds Harry with a teenage hitchhiker named Ginger, who is quietly played by a young Melanie Mayron. Harry becomes protective of Ginger, and she urges him to look up Jessie Stone. a dancer who was Harry's first lover.  She is reportedly in Indiana, which is sort of on the way to Chicago. After hitting one dead end, they find Jessie in a nursing home.  Jessie has dementia, but she remembers Harry a little.  Harry is moved, and is very tender towards Jessie.  She then invites Harry to dance and the result is screen bliss.  Geraldine Fitzgerald is truly award-worthy in her one scene as Jessie in the film.

Carney is superb as Harry.  It's hard to imagine that he was only 56 when he made the film, as Harry is at least 15 years older.  Carney's performance is layered, quiet, and thoughtful.  With the afore-mentioned performances by Hoffman, Nicholson, and Pacino, 1974 truly had a plethora of great Best Actor nominees. (I find Finney's performance as Agatha Christie's detective Hercule Poirot to be too over-the-top for my tastes.)

There are other notable actors in the movie. Cliff de Young has an early career role as Harry's angry grandson Burt Jr.  Josh Mostel is memorable as Harry's weird grandson Norman. Larry Hagman plays against type as Harry's son Eddie, who is failing at life and nearing desperation,.  Eddie looks to Harry to bail him out.  There is a great scene where Harry finds himself in jail with an Indian who has been arrested for practicing medicine without a license.  The medicine man is played with humor by Chief Dan George, and the scene where he treats Harry for bursitis manages to be both warm and witty.

Throughout the movie, Harry interacts with his cat Tonto, but the film is about Harry embracing life among the humans he encounters. It's a message that resonates well after the movie ends. Mazursky's direction is outstanding.  This is an example of the type of early 1970s cinema that I love, before the studios stopped making such thoughtful fare on a routine basis.  Before the advent of the blockbuster.  Despite a brief rough start near the beginning of the film, Harry and Tonto is one of the best quiet dramatic films that I can remember.  I love this movie. Grade: A.

I originally saw Harry and Tonto edited for commercial TV in the late 1970s or early 1980s.  I didn't remember much of it -- mostly the Ellen Burstyn and Larry Hagman scenes.  It is much, much better than I remembered.  I watched the movie this time via Netflix Streaming on January 31, 2013.  It won't be another 30 years before I catch it again!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

Since the advent of talking motion pictures, there have been relatively few comedy auteurs. Oh, there have been lots of comedies and sometimes very good ones. Generally speaking though, these are made by directors who direct other genres as well. Films like Tootsie, Moonstruck, and MASH come to mind, though there are many, many others. Some directors, like Steven Spielberg or Alfred Hitchcock, have a flair for incorporating comedic elements in their films, but have fallen flat when they have attempted out-and-out comedies. The early promise of Cameron Crowe petered out after Almost Famous in 2000. There are two directors that I would consider to be comedy auteurs with reservations -- Billy Wilder and James L. Brooks. Wilder made some great comedies, but he also directed great movies in other genres. His comedies (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, for example) were brilliant enough to consider him a comedy auteur, I suppose. Brooks made 3 comedy masterpieces in a 30 year movie career -- Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good as It Gets. The rest of his 6 picture oeuvre is somewhat weaker (though I liked them all -- How Do You Know, Spanglish, and even I'll Do Anything). When you factor in Brooks's TV writing credits (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Phyllis, Taxi, and The Simpsons), well, you almost have to consider him a comedy auteur.

I can think of three more prolific filmmakers who almost exclusively worked in comedy: Frank Capra, Woody Allen, and... Preston Sturges. Sturges was arguably the first director in the post-silent film era to write and direct his own screenplays. This freedom only came after years of working on scripts within the studio system. The movie studio didn't care for Sturges wearing both hats on a film, but tolerated it because of his success. He won the first Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for The Great McGinty, and he was nominated twice more -- for The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero.

Hail the Conquering Hero is a delightful wartime comedy set on the home front. Eddie Bracken plays Woodrow Truesmith, a young soldier who is embarrassed to return to his hometown because he has been medically discharged from the Marines due to extreme hay fever. He encounters a group of Marines and buys them a round of beer. When they learn about his plight, they intervene and concoct a story about Truesmith being a hero at Guadalcanal. The Marines accompany him to his hometown, and with a lot of exaggeration from the group's Sgt. Heppelfinger, Truesmith finds himself a celebrated hero by the townsfolk. He is soon nominated as a mayoral candidate and his protests only endear him to the electorate.

It is hard to imagine any actor of the day being more suited to the role of Truesmith than Bracken. Bracken's earnestness, likability, and line delivery serve the character well. I didn't know many of the other cast members other than William Demarest and Franklin Pangborn who were both used by Sturges repeatedly in his movies. Demarest, well-known for portraying Uncle Charley on TV's My Three Sons, plays Sgt. Heppelfinger with appropriate crustiness and bombast. Pangborn ably plays the reception committee chairman. I also liked Georgia Caine's understated performance as Truesmith's proud mother.

Hail the Conquering Hero is a fast-paced comedy with sharp, rapid-fire dialogue and lots of charm. The main problem seems to me to be the bland performances of Ella James as Truesmith's girlfriend Libby and the guys who play the younger Marines without much distinction between them. It is definitely a classic comedy and shouldn't be missed. Grade: A-.

I watched Hail the Conquering Hero via Netflix Streaming on January 30, 2013.

Bernie (2012)

I doubt that I would have ever watched Bernie had it not been for the recommendation of a good friend.  I'm just not much of a Jack Black fan, and this film was completely off my radar when it was mentioned to me. Thankfully, I had the good sense to trust my friend's opinion because Bernie is one of the best black comedies that I've seen in many moons.

The film is based on a true story. I have no idea how much of the film is true, but would guess that it is substantially accurate, based on the real pictures of the main characters that are shown during the closing credits.  Director Richard Linklater wisely fashioned the story as a faux-documentary.  Much of the film's humor comes from the interviews of real-life Carthage, Texas residents who knew Bernie Tiede and Marjorie Nugent and offer their colorful perspectives on the situation.

Here are the movie's facts in a nutshell: Bernie Tiede moves to Carthage, Texas when he accepts a job as an assistant funeral director.  He is a model employee and extraordinary citizen of the town. He is active in church and community theater, and the older ladies of the town are particularly enamored with him.  He strikes up a friendship with Marjorie Nugent, the wealthiest widow in town and widely believed to be the meanest.  Bernie and Marjorie travel together and Bernie is entrusted with Marjorie's investment decisions as well.  Eventually, Bernie is designated in Marjorie's will as her sole beneficiary.

Yet Bernie finds life with Marjorie to be stifling, and he shoots and kills her one day.  Apparently mortified by what he has done, he hides her in her freezer and invents ruse after ruse to convince people that Marjorie is still alive.  Eventually, Marjorie's body is found. District attorney Danny Buck, charismatically played by Matthew McConaughey, vows that justice will be served, but then finds that his jury pool is in question when the town overwhelmingly backs Bernie.

Shirley MacLaine plays Marjorie with appropriate tartness, investing the character with vinegar and bile. Jack Black is a revelation as Bernie, however, and delivers a funny, well-rounded performance full of charm and kindness.  He also gets to sing gospel numbers, hymns, and a couple of musical comedy selections.  He captures every nuance of the character. It's a performance that should have been worthy of Oscar recognition -- Black is that good.

As a film, Bernie moves along at a brisk pace. Linklater's direction is excellent and the editing is a strong aspect of the movie.  Perhaps the film seems a little less funny as it winds down, but for most of the ride, the audience will likely be bathed in unexpected pleasure.  Grade: A-.

I watched Bernie with my friend Brian via Netflix Streaming on January 29, 2013.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Mister Roberts (1955)

Mister Roberts is a re-watch for me. I caught it a few years ago on TCM. It is a 1955 film adaptation of a successful stage play by Joshua Logan that ran for several years on Broadway.  Henry Fonda reprises the title role in the film; he played the role for over four years on stage.  The film also stars James Cagney,  William Powell, and Jack Lemmon.  Mister Roberts is a sturdy and entertaining movie, though perhaps it is a little padded and long.  Whenever one of the four main stars are onscreen however, well, it's hard to resist them.

The film is credited with being directed by both legendary director John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy.  Ford, who won an Oscar as Best Director four times -- more than any other director -- apparently tried to put his stamp on the story by beefing it up a little. This rankled Fonda, who was loyal to the source Broadway play.  Ford developed a gall bladder problem, and left the production. He was replaced by LeRoy.  According to Lemmon, writer Logan also directed a few scenes too.With so many hands at the helm, it is surprising that the movie is as cohesive as it is.  In fact, it won Lemmon a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and the film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Sound.

Fonda portrays Lt. Doug Roberts, a sailor who has forfeited a career as a physician because of his patriotism.  He yearns to be near the action in the Pacific, but it is near the end of World War II and he has been stationed for many months on a cargo ship that is helmed by the tyrannical Captain Morgan. Morgan is played with bristle and bluster by Cagney. Morton tries to run a tight ship and refuses to let the crew have furlough. The crew is restless, and they respect Lt. Roberts because they see him trying to stand up for them against the captain.

Roberts tries unsuccessfully many times to get transferred off of Morgan's ship.  However, he agrees to Morgan's demands to do exactly what Morgan wants in order to secure a furlough for the crew.  After the raucous furlough,  the crew resents Lt. Roberts' apparent shift in loyalty to the captain; they perceive it to be a career move on Roberts' behalf.  Eventually, Morgan gets outwitted and Roberts gets his transfer, leaving Ensign Pulver (Lemmon) as the first mate.

At 50, Fonda was pushing the age limit to play Roberts in the film.  He gives a fine performance however -- dignified, kind, intelligent, confident, and honorable.  His screen presence is essential for the success of the film.  As Captain Morgan, Cagney gives a one-note performance, but at least it's a funny note.  William Powell plays the ship's doctor and confidante to Roberts.  Lemmon is quite funny as the ensign who constantly schemes to avoid work and find women. He hits all the right notes in this comedic turn, and definitely deserved his Oscar nomination and probably deserved his win.

There are some interesting actors who play fellow sailors on the ship. Character actor Ward Bond, Patrick Wayne (son of John), Ken Curtis (Festus on TV's Gunsmoke), Nick Adams, Phil Carey, and Harry Carey, Jr.  All the sailors exhibit good camaraderie.

One of the added features in the film that was not in the stage play is the addition of some nurses to a nearby hospital. Of these ladies, only Betsy Palmer is given much to do. She's beautiful, smart, and sassy, and holds her own against Lemmon quite well.  Palmer should have had a greater career instead of being sidelined as a panelist on TV's I've Got a Secret for years. She eventually did achieve screen immortality of sorts by playing Jason's mother in the original Friday the 13th movie.

Mister Roberts has a nice blend of inoffensive comedy and drama. It has a quartet of movie pros in major roles that keep the film fun to watch. Accordingly, it is essential viewing for fans of Fonda, Cagney, Powell, or Lemmon.  Grade: B+.

I watched Mister Roberts on DVD on January 29, 2013.


War and Remembrance (1988)

I used to love the format of the television miniseries where it took 8 to 12 hours (or more) to tell a story. Miniseries had their heyday from roughly the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. ABC was the king of churning out miniseries, starting with the exquisite Rich Man, Poor Man and followed by ratings smashes Roots, Roots: The Next Generations, The Thorn Birds, The Winds of War, and the North & South trilogy. These are all big, impressive, star-studded stories that kept viewers tuning in several nights a week until the stories were told. NBC was also successful with the miniseries game, producing such long-form spectacles as Holocaust, Centennial, Backstairs at the White House, and Shogun. CBS wasn't a major miniseries player, though it did produce the much-beloved Lonesome Dove. A quality miniseries was appointment television at its best.

But for a variety of reasons, the miniseries as a viable long-form vehicle to tell longer, self-contained stories fell out of favor. Some of it was due to inferior productions. Some of it was due to proliferation -- the networks churned out more 4 or 6 hour shows and aired them for two hours a night on consecutive nights and called them miniseries. They lost their value as spectacle (and in my opinion, a four hour miniseries is merely a two-part made-for-TV movie. But the landscape for television drama shows began to change as well. No longer were hour-long dramas limiting themselves to crafting self-contained hour-long stories. Shows like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and Wiseguy had overlapping story arcs that played out over a variety of episodes. Prime time soaps like Dallas and Dynasty told continuing stories. The syndicated Star Trek: Deep Space Nine played like a long novel spread out over seven seasons. FOX bent the status-quo rules many times: Arrested Development was a serial comedy and the thriller 24 told a 24 hour story in each of its eight seasons with virtually every episode ending in a cliffhanger. Then cable TV got in the act and started creating regular TV series that were beautifully written and had stories that played out over 13 episodes. Each new season, shorter than the seasons of traditional broadcast networks, would have season-long themes that fit into the overall long term story of the show. Probably the biggest example of this was HBO's The Sopranos, but there have been many like FX's The Shield or Rescue Me that provide edgy, sharply-written and well-acted content. PBS has been airing serial stories for over 40 years.

So essentially the miniseries didn't go away; it simply morphed into a variety of ways to tell stories on television without limiting the story to a fixed number of nights on conventional TV. A story can now be as long as it needs to be (or as long as ratings warrant -- there are still times when a great series is cut short for some reason). And viewers still embrace the idea of watching a continued story in a compressed time frame. Many people like to engage in "binge-watching" by watching entire seasons -- or even entire series runs -- consecutively. It's fun, for example, to watch 24 episodes of 24 over a long weekend instead of waiting 5 months for the story to unfold.

Interestingly enough, it was largely War and Remembrance which sounded the death knell for the traditional miniseries. War and Remembrance told the story of the Henrys, a military family who experienced World War II from Europe, the Pacific, and at home in the US. At the time that it was originally broadcast in 1988, it was the most expensive television production ever filmed. Filming occurred in over 750 locations worldwide; casting necessitated that there were thousands of extras with over 350 speaking parts. And as War and Remembrance was a sequel to the very highly rated The Winds of War, which explored the events leading up to America's involvement in the war at the bombing of Pearl Harbor, ABC sprang for the whole cost.

With 30 broadcast hours, it was television's biggest miniseries ever. Ratings were disappointing to ABC, even though the show was successful. It was originally broadcast over two separate weeks, though they weren't consecutive weeks. There were a couple of months separating the two parts. Additionally, War and Remembrance recast several of the characters from The Winds of War which may have proved jarring to audiences. (To be fair, I would argue that most of the cast changes were for the better. The only weak replacement in my view was the casting of Hart Bochner as Byron Henry, the youngest Henry son. He replaced the much more charismatic and intense -- albeit older --Jan-Michael Vincent.)

By any standard though, the production of War and Remembrance was a gigantic undertaking, and the results were impressive. War and Remembrance was strongest in its story threads involving the plight of Byron's wife Natalie, his son Lewis, and Natalie's uncle Aaron Jastrow.  Their struggle  against their treatment as Jews who eventually wind up at the Auschwitz death camp is poignant and heartbreaking.. The scenes involving the maniacal Adolf Hitler make for fascinating, educational, and troubling viewing. I also enjoyed scenes involving FDR, Truman, Churchill, or Eisenhower.

Dramatically speaking, the story of the rest of the Henrys was much less compelling than it was in The Winds of War. It wasn't fatal to the miniseries, however, because they had less to do than in the earlier, shorter series. Robert Mitchum returned as family patriarch Victor "Pug" Henry, and though he was a little long-in-the-tooth, he brought important gravitas and screen presence to the show. Jane Seymour was quite affecting as Natalie Jastrow Henry who had two unwavering goals -- to protect her son Lewis and to help her uncle Aaron get out of Europe. Polly Bergen's performance as Pug's first wife Rhoda was usually grating, but then Rhoda is a grating character. She has a long scene in the last part with Victoria Tennant, who plays Pug's second wife Pamela Tudsbury. The actresses are remarkable here. Ralph Bellamy as FDR, Richard Dysart as Truman, Steven Berkoff as Hitler, and Robert Hardy as Churchill were excellent.

The greatest performance in the miniseries, however, is John Gielgud's soul-stirring performance as Aaron Jastrow. He replaced John Houseman from The Winds of War, and his performance is much less sickly than Houseman's was. Gielgud is able to beautifully demonstrate the discovery of Aaron's faith, and his final scenes of horror at Auschwitz are among the most powerful that I have ever seen performed in any medium. The great acting by Gielgud makes Aaron Jastrow a great character for the ages.

Despite its flaws, we will never see the likes of War and Remembrance again. Its huge scope was important to be able to look at World War II from all the angles. The value of this miniseries may be more as a history lesson than as a dramatic masterwork.  And that's fine; certainly there is nothing else like it being produced today.  It's a brave and ambitious project that always succeeds -- and sometimes brilliantly.  Grade: A-.

Fun fact: War and Remembrance includes the story about the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler.  This story was also the basis of the Tom Cruise film Valkyrie.

I watched War and Remembrance on DVD, finishing on January 28, 2013.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (2009)

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is a film written and directed by actor John Krasinski and based on a book of short stories by the late David Foster Wallace. I admire Krasinski's ambition with this project because I've read some of Wallace's work, and I can't imagine that any of it would be easily adapted to film. Wallace often seemed to be show-offy in his work, as if to say "see what great literary heights I can hit". He would then go off on literary tangents or get cute with footnotes; I always felt that Wallace thought himself too clever for mere mortal readers. In my eyes, his work was gimmicky. And that is what Krasinski has created -- a gimmicky, meandering film that wants to be taken seriously but is too sophomoric and mean-spirited to elicit goodwill from the viewer.

The story is about Sara, a graduate students played by Julianne Nicholson. Sara is working on a thesis project to interview men to find out why they mistreat women. In between many monologues of her subjects -- some of whom are in her academic and social circles -- we learn that Sara has been unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend for no apparent reason. Krasinski plays her ex-boyfriend who, in a scene late in the film, comes to tell Sara exactly why he cheated on her. Timothy Hutton plays Sara's professor. Other actors who play Sara's interviewees include Will Forte, Will Arnett, Josh Charles, Joey Slotnick, Ben Shenkman, Max Minghella, Frankie Faison, Clarke Peters, Christopher Meloni, Bobby Cannavale, Dominic Cooper, and Denis O'Hare. The actors are all adequate playing self-absorbed insufferable, unlikable bores.   Most of them give performances like they are on stage.

Then there is a central problem with Nicholson. Her character Sara acts vapid and is completely devoid of personality. I could certainly understand why her boyfriend dumped her and it had nothing to do with the reasons he stated -- she would have just been too annoying to be around.

If Krasinski's intent was to create a film version that mimics the writing of David Foster Wallace, then he succeeded. In addition to Wallace's aforementioned writerly tricks, Wallace's stories are full of annoying people caught up in uninteresting situations. The film seemed interminable at only 80 minutes. I have to wonder who the intended audience is. The best thing about the movie is its title. Grade: D-.

I watched Brief Interviews with Hideous Men on Netflix Streaming on January 24, 2013.

Monday, January 28, 2013

My Sister Maria (2002)

I expect documentaries to take a position on some issue, and then to support that premise with filmed footage. Of course, I'm aware that the filmmaker is in no way obligated to present both sides of a story. Take Michael Moore, for example. His Bowling for Columbine is an entertaining film that starts with the tragic Columbine high school shooting and becomes a diatribe promoting gun control. It's a position that I don't agree with, and in the film I think Moore does a lot of sly staging and comparing apples to oranges. Yet it is still one of my favorite documentaries. He took a position and presented it in a compelling, albeit one-sided, way.

I wish actor Maximilian Schell had done the same thing in this documentary about his sister, actress Maria Schell. Maria Schell had a brilliant career in European films, finally winning a Best Actress award at the Cannes film festival. Hollywood came calling soon after, and she made several Hollywood movies. I've seen a handful of those -- The Brothers Karamazov with Yul Brynner, Cimarron with Glenn Ford, Voyage of the Damned, and Superman. Maria was a beautiful and gifted actress.

But this film My Sister Maria that her brother Maximilian has written and directed is a wreck. It purports to be a loving look at the life of his gifted sister. Yet it paints a picture of an addled old woman who had a stroke and sits around her home in Austria watching her old movies and spending money that she doesn't have. Very Sunset Boulevard, in fact. Many aspects of this later period of Maria's life are elaborately "re-staged" -- if they are true to begin with.

And therein lies most of my frustration with My Sister Maria. I don't believe it for a minute. I think it is some kind of elaborate ruse by Maximilian Schell to offer this unflattering look at an aging actress well past her prime. If it isn't, then Maximilian is cruel and exploitative towards his sister.

Here is why I think this movie is a put-on: First, Maria doesn't seen all that demented to me, nor does she seem to be showing much physical effect from a bad stroke. Secondly, there are plenty of "re-created" moments in the film, such as a double for Maria falling down in the snow while walking and then a cut to the real Maria's face. Thirdly, I don't buy that the cameras just happened to capture Maximilian finding out about his sister's dire financial straits so he then jets off to sell an expensive investment painting to cover her debts. That makes Maximilian seem heroic in Maria's story, and certainly appears self-serving. And lastly,  Maria burns down the family house in the movie's climax? Please -- that's pretty unbelievable. And re-staged, of course.

I don't have a reason for Maximilian creating this cinematic deception, unless it is his revenge for him having to take care of his sister. I was hoping to see a realistic portrait of the life and career of a talented actress. Instead, I got this drivel which seems to be a fictionalized account of the end of a talented actress's life. I can't understand why Maria, if she isn't demented, would have agreed to go along with this hogwash. (And how demented could she be when she was able to attend the premiere of this film three years before her death?)  Film clips of Maria's movies are haphazardly interspersed throughout the film. She is luminous in those clips, but the rest of the film is neither flattering or factual.

A fictional documentary is nothing more than a routine movie, and My Sister Maria is a bad movie. It's so bad that my esteem for Maximilian Schell has deteriorated. This portrait of his sister is unkind and unnecessary. Grade: D+ (credit given for the clips of Maria's movies). Note: The film is in German with subtitles.

I watched My Sister Maria via Netflix Streaming on January 21, 2013

Life of Pi (2012)

Every once in awhile, you simply have to eat crow.

From the time Life of Pi first became a best selling book by Yann Martel, nothing I read about the story made me the least bit interested in it. The title even turned me off. Then it was announced that it was going to be a movie and that it would be directed by Ang Lee, one of my favorite directors.

I still had no interest in seeing a movie about a young man who spends weeks adrift on a raft in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger.

The movie opened to rapturous critical acclaim and good box office. Nope, I still was not interested. In fact, when I had the opportunity to take two young friends to the movies who had already seen Wreck-It Ralph, I opted for the very mediocre Rise of the Guardians over Life of Pi. (Admittedly, at that point I did figure that I wouldn't have disliked Life of Pi any less than I cared for Rise of the Guardians). But I still held firm in my refusal to see the movie Life of Pi. And in my (meager) defense, I hadn't talked to anyone else who had seen Life of Pi or wanted to see it.

And then Life of Pi garnered 11 Oscar nominations.

What a quandary for a dedicated Oscar-phile! I try to see every film nominated for an Oscar in a major category, and now one that I actively didn't want to see piled up a slew of nominations -- including Best Picture and Best Director for Lee. I knew then that I was going to have to see Life of Pi. But I wasn't happy about the prospect.

Maybe it's better to have poor expectations for a movie. In today's climate, it's hard to go into a film and have no expectations because the publicity machine always starts with a film's pre-production and my awareness about many movies is often high. At any rate, I was captivated by Life of Pi from the moment the movie started. Ang Lee certainly has an eye for how to fill a screen; so many of his shots are gorgeous. All of the production values were first rate -- the score, the cinematography, the editing, the special effects. Lee's Best Director nomination was well-deserved.

One word about the special effects. The move was filmed in 3-D, and it is one film that I wish I had seen in 3-D. I didn't, but it looked to me like some of the effects would have been spectacular in 3-D.

I found that I was interested in the story, too. I think it it difficult to maintain interest in a story with only one or two characters, and the last time that I remember enjoying a film that had large sections of it devoted to one human was in 2000's Cast Away. The acting in the movie was fine, though no performance was exceptional. The only person in the cast who I recognized was French superstar Gerard Depardieu, I liked the earnestness of Suraj Sharma, who played young Pi, and the screen presence of Rafe Spall, who played the writer interviewing the older Pi.

There is a flaw in the film that frustrated me to no end near the end of this otherwise remarkable film. There is a long monologue by Irrfan Khan, who plays the older Pi. In this monologue, which is a constant close-up shot to begin with, the adult Pi describes some events that may or may not be important. My point is that this was all told in verbal narrative, and a flashback type of device that could have showed as well as told would have been a much less dull method of storytelling. This scene as is brought the film to a deadly stop at a crucial point in the movie. Accordingly, I have to award Life of Pi an A-, even if it did exceed my expectations in a big way.

Crow like this tastes pretty good!

I watched this film at the Pullman Square Marquee Cinemas with my buddy Bruce.

Cheech & Chong's Up in Smoke (1978)

I can't remember ever watching a stoner flick prior to watching this movie. I've seen plenty of movies that had some classic stoner comedy in it, like National Lampoon's Animal House or Fast Times at Ridgemont High. These movies, however, were concerned with a lot more than getting high. While I certainly knew that Cheech & Chong had a lot of drug humor in their comedy act, I was a lot more familiar with their shtick like "Basketball Jones" or "Sister Mary Elephant". These days, Cheech Marin has morphed into a supporting actor in films like Tin Cup or From Dusk till Dawn, or TV's Nash Bridges. As for Tommy Chong, well, he's the father of 80s actress Rae Dawn Chong, right?

Since I was looking for a mindless movie to watch, I decided to clear Cheech & Chong's Up in Smoke off my Netflix queue where it had been taking up space for a long time. The film was pretty much as I expected. The characters played by Cheech and Chong meet, discover that they have a passion in common for getting high as often as possible, find themselves in crazy situations as a result of pursuing this passion, and somehow stay a step ahead of law enforcement officials. Sometimes I laughed, sometimes I cringed. Quality-wise, I thought it was on par with Adam Sandler movies of the last decade or so -- but funnier. Lou Adler's direction is actually pretty good, and the cinematography is surprisingly lush and colorful.

The set piece of the movie has the potheads driving a van made of marijuana across the border from Mexico to the United States. Stacy Keach has a one-note role as a cop pursuing this van. Strother Martin and Edie Adams have small roles as the parents of Chong's character. Tom Skerritt plays a friend of Cheech's character, a Vietnam vet with a marijuana habit. Ellen Barkin and David Nelson (of TV's Ozzie & Harriet fame) make very minor appearances. All the performances are fine for what they are, but nobody is going to win any acting awards in a film like this. Marin is particularly funny, though. In a lot of ways, Cheech & Chongs Up in Smoke is a late 1970s rendition of the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby "Road" movies of the 1940s and 1950s.

Drug humor must not be politically correct these days, as it has been a long time since I've seen much drug humor in the movies or on TV. In my college days, TV's Saturday Night Live had drug humor almost on a weekly basis. Nowadays when drugs are portrayed, they are almost always in a dramatic, if not tragic, light. I'm not sure why the entertainment media no longer acknowledges the counterculture. It's hard to imagine that watching inane behavior in a silly Cheech & Chong movie would entice anyone to turn to marijuana use if they already were not partaking of it.

Ultimately, Cheech & Chong's Up In Smoke is a movie of its time and is as lightweight and mainstream as generic slapstick comedies of any movie era. As a comedy team, Cheech & Chong exhibited surprising screen presence and were successful in tapping into the mood of moviegoers of a particular generation. And given a choice between a Cheech & Chong or an Adam Sandler vehicle, well, I'd probably prefer Cheech & Chong. Grade: B-

I watched Cheech & Chong's Up in Smoke via Netflix Streaming on January 14, 2013.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Batman: Year One (2011)

Batman: Year One is an animated film based on the classic graphic novel by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli. The story has Bruce Wayne returning to Gotham City after being educated abroad following the murders of his parents. Wayne is searching for a way that he can make a difference in the rising crime rate in the city. Concurrently, upright police lieutenant Jim Gordon has returned to his hometown of Gotham City. Iin addition to the crime element on the streets, Gordon must also deal with a corrupt police department and a rift with his pregnant wife.

Wayne soon takes to the streets at night as the crimefighter Batman. Initially Gordon views Batman as a vigilante detrimental to society and vows to bring him to justice. Over time, the two become allies and clean up the corrupt police department and its ties to the mob. Batman: Year One does not include any of the traditional Batman Rogue's Gallery (Joker, Penguin, Riddler, etc.), but it does feature a small role for Selina Kyle, a streetwise burglar who becomes aware of Batman's presence in her area. Kyle will eventually become Catwoman, a quasi-villain with a complicated history of interacting with both Bruce Wayne and Batman.

I liked the animation of this film. It seems simple, but it captures the look of the source graphic novel. Its style reminded me of anime. The voice casting was mostly good. Bryan Cranston voiced Jim Gordon, and he was excellent. Ben McKenzie was merely adequate as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Faring better were other voice actors such as Eliza Dushku (as Selena Kyle), Jon Polito, Alex Rocco, and Katee Sackhoff. Other characters from the traditional Batman canon included butler Alfred Pennyworth, news reporter Vicki Vale, and district attorney Harvey Dent.

Clocking in at barely over an hour, Batman: Year One is compelling for Batman aficionados. The film, directed by Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery, is a faithful adaptation of the Miller/Mazzucchelli graphic novel. With its emphasis rooted in a more realistic crime drama, the movie might even hold the interest of non-comic readers. Grade: B+.