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.