Wednesday, December 21, 2011

REVIEW: Young Adult

Many people have complained that the lead character of Young Adult is so despicable they couldn't stand spending even 90 minutes with her. They say she's an irredeemable lout who doesn't learn a damn thing by the end of her movie.

They're right. But that's the beauty of Young Adult. And that's why it's one of the best films of the year. At least for a guy like me who can relate.

Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a onetime high school queen bee who has become a complete and total train wreck. She swigs Diet Coke directly from a two liter bottle every morning, probably to counteract all the booze she swallowed the night before. She toils joylessly on a series of young adult novels that have declined in popularity, and she doesn't even get notable credit for them.

So when she hears that her former high school sweetheart has just had a baby, Mavis gets it in her head that she and Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) were always meant to be together, and dammit, she's going to steal him away from his wife if it's the last thing she does.

Mavis is completely and totally irrational, callous and deluded. I get that. But Young Adult benefited from my personal experience. You see, I once knew a Mavis Gary. Indeed, I fell for a Mavis Gary. And a Mavis Gary cruelly broke my heart. But I never hated my Mavis Gary. Unlike some viewers, I understood how someone could love that girl - and that's why the movie grabbed my attention and still hasn't let go.

Writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman (Juno) have created an acidic character study - one that for many is a poison pill. But for me it was bittersweet. I found the sadness and yes, resigned wisdom that can be found in this movie if you know where to look.

Many of the acts Mavis commits in this movie are absolutely awful. I wouldn't go so far as to suggest viewers let her off the hook. The movie certainly doesn't, and that's all to the good. But what the movie does do is that it gives the viewer a voice in the movie through Patton Oswalt, who plays Matt. He had the locker next to Mavis in high school but she never gave him the time of day. Indeed, she has no idea who he is is until she recalls him as "the hate crime guy" who was maimed by a gang of jocks who beat him up because they thought he was gay.  The two, against their better judgment form an unlikely bond.

That relationship gives Young Adult its through-line, and its emotional resonance. In some ways, I identified with Matt, and when he tells Mavis "Guys like me are made to fall for girls like you," Young Adult rang about as true as any movie has this year.

I can see why Mavis would turn people off - but the movie also made me walk a mile in her shoes. I didn't sympathize with her, but I empathized with her and Matt in many ways. Young Adult was the visualization of a saying I've heard often: Never be too quick to judge people. You never know what battles they may be fighting.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

REVIEW: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

If nothing else, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol goes down in history as the movie that made my palms sweat the most.

You’ve probably guessed that this comes from the scene where Tom Cruise scales the side of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai in a way that would make Peter Parker blink. And you would be correct. It’s not that I’m afraid of heights. I’ve been to the top of the Sears Tower twice without breaking even a bead of sweat. But put me in a seat in front of an IMAX screen and swing me around that building with Tom Cruise and I’m a jittery mess.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that the fourth Mission: Impossible movie is the popcorn flick of the year. I haven’t had my nerves jangled that hard since James Cameron’s Aliens. It didn’t grab my emotions quite as tightly as that film, or for that matter, as Mission: Impossible 3, but taken purely as a thrill ride, this is the best action film since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

And that’s no coincidence because both movies were filmed partly with IMAX cameras, and both were shot by directors with boundless visual invention. That Brad Bird has succeeded smashingly  only makes this Mission all the more impressive.

Indeed, the IMAX sequence above, upon, inside and around the Burg Khalifa is almost too effective. In most action movies, this would be the final “Wow em out the door” scene.  It’s in the middle of this film, with about another hour to go (I think. I wasn’t exactly eyeing the time.)  That’s how relentless this movie is.

Much has been made of the fact that Bird took an unconventional leap from animation to live action. He made one of the best 2D films of the 90s with The Iron Giant, and he also helmed two of Pixar’s best movies: The Incredibles and Ratatouille. The visual invention on display in those films is at play too, precisely because of Bird’s animation background.

Animators feel unconstrained by boundaries. They can make their characters do pretty much anything and that’s the mindset Bird applies here. The movie zips along at such a breathless pace, I never once stopped to question its repeated flaunting of the laws of physics. A climactic sequence with Cruise and his nemesis can’t possibly top the Dubai scene, but it’s still exciting because Bird handles a vertical chase scene with such aplomb.

Also contributing to the film’s success is Bird’s top-flight technical crew. Cinematographer Robert Elswit showed a flair for action in Tomorrow Never Dies and editor Paul Hirsch worked on a little movie called Star Wars, among many others.

The movie does fall a little short dramatically - it doesn’t have as much emotional pull as Mission: Impossible 3 did, with no strong female lead, and no villain here can hope to top Philip Seymour Hoffman’s work in the same film. I rather wish Bird had co-written the script so it could be as smart as his direction.

Still, those palms of mine were damp with sweat long after the movie was over. In fact, they’re even clamming up again as I recall sitting in the theater being held in thrall. Now there’s a movie that sticks with you.


Wednesday, December 07, 2011


Many reviews of Martin Scorsese's Hugo have marveled at what a departure it is for the greatest living director. And all I can say to that is ... what movie did THEY see?

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely loved Hugo, having just seen it a second time. But it's not really a departure for Scorsese. Inevitably, the man will be best remembered for his crime pictures and gritty dramas.  Hugo is certainly neither of those. I would stop short of calling Hugo his best film, but it is one of his masterpieces - and more importantly, it's the movie he was born to make.

First and foremost, Martin Scorsese is America's premier student of film. He, more than any other working director, lives and breathes the medium, knowing its history, and its power to transfix audiences, inside and out. Hugo, based on the historical fiction novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick may nominally be about a boy who lives in a train station, longing for companionship, but more than anything else, Scorsese's film is a valentine to cinema itself, as it wonderfully depicts many people seeing a movie for the very first time.

And just when it seemed 3D was on the ropes, buckling under the weight of shoddy conversions and crass commercialism, along comes Scorsese, showing us that yes, the techinque truly can be essential to the telling of its story. Scorsese employs the third dimension in just about every way possible, using it to make rooms seem vast and imperious, to make  great heights seem vertiginous, to make us duck as a runaway train hurtles off track through the station. Most crucially, he draws us into the worlds of Paris. He made me feel like I was right there with the characters, ducking my pursuers or gaping in awe at visual wonders I've never seen before.

 Yes, the movie will play just fine flat, I'm sure. But just as seeing a movie at home can never capture the full experience of going to the theater, seeing this movie only in 2D would diminish its impact.  The 3D enhances the imagery, making it even more potent. This is especially important considering much of the film centers around Georges Meiles (Bem Kingsley) the early wizard of cinema whose most famous film is probably the 1902 short, A Trip to the Moon, which features a rocket giving the moon a hell of a black eye. Meilies was one of the first people to understand that movies could not just capture images or tell stories, but to take viewers to places they would never see otherwise. When Hugo depicts Melies making his films, I felt lost at the movies in the best possible way.

It's only too easy to praise Hugo for its craft; for Dante Ferretti's eye-filling production design to Robert Richardson's lush cinematography to Howard Shore's playful score. But there's much more to the movie than what's behind the camera. Asa Butterfield is ideal as the title character creating a heart-rending portrayual of an endlessly resourceful but ultimately lost boy. Chloe Grace Moretz once again proves herself one of the great child actors, playing Hugo's book-loving confidant Isabelle in a way that channels no one less than Audrey Hepburn.And Ben Kingsley is wonderful as Meilies, a lost man just aching to be found, even if he doesn't know that at first.

Were I feeling less transported, I might feel inclined to quibble that Scorsese might have done well to trim the movie back a bit from running just over two hours. A little too much time is spent on characters other than the kids and Mellies, and whenever the film diverted from them, the energy drained somewhat.

Even so, I can only give the movie my highest recommendation. It hit me not only as a film lover, but also on a personal level. I teared up when it was revealed that many of Meilies' movies were preserved for future generations. And like Hugo, I have found myself struggling with my identity, wondering just what my place is in a world that seemed particularly tumultuous of late. When life closes in like that, it's wonderful indeed  to know that there are movies like Hugo that can wrap us up in our dreams, even while we're wide awake.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

REVIEW: The Muppets

When I saw the little puppet show near the end of Forgetting Sarah Marshall a few years ago, I thought to myself, "Hey, maybe these guys could bring the Muppets back."

And so they have. Actor Jason Segel and his co-writer Nicholas Stoller, who made Sarah Marshall, have now restored the Muppets' luster. The new, self-titled movie made me smile more than any other movie I saw this year.

That's no small wonder. I'm one of the original Muppet fans from back in the Day. I'm 41, only one year younger than Sesame Street, which popularized Jim Henson's characters. I watched The Muppet Show every week. When the original Muppet Movie came out in 1979, I saw it four or five times in the theater - a record for me back then. I memorized the soundtrack to that film and amazed my friends by knowing every single word to "Rainbow Connection."

So it saddened me to see the Muppets gradually lose their luster over the past couple of decades, cranking out product that was middling (Muppets from Space) or out-and-out bad (Muppets Wizard of Oz). "The Muppets aren't hip anymore," the masses claimed.

Well, no duh. The Muppets never really were "hip." Even back in their 70s heyday, they had an ageless appeal that was rarely tied to any particular era. Unlike many movies of my childhood years, The Muppet Movie didn't scream 1970s. The Muppets of the 21st century understands this very well, since it doesn't strain to pander to irony and cynicism.

The story revolves around getting the wooly bunch back together after Kermit learns the Muppet studios are about to be sold, unless they can raise $10 million. It won't be easy.  The gang has drifted apart over the years as the Muppets faded into history. Even Miss Piggy is estranged from Kermit, having carved out a new life as a fashion magazine editor in Paris. (Of course).

The new movie employs a particular stroke of  genius: the  new Muppet character Walter, who is supposed to be Jason Segel's brother. Walter adores the classic Muppets and can't resist falling in with their crowd, but he begins to doubt himself, wondering if he can really fit in. At the same time, Segel's character has to come to grips with his own childlike tendencies, and this is wonderfully staged in a musical number called "Man or Muppet."

Given the bountiful mnostalgia at play here, it's tempting to overrate the film, especially since I've been starved for good Muppet material. The jokes clanked more often than they should have, and I was disappointed that my great crush, Amy Adams, was not used particularly well. She's perfectly fine in her part as Segel's love interest, and she's always fun to watch, but the role doesn't give her  unique comedic gifts a chance to flower. In this movie, she's basically "the girl," albeit a talented one.  The film is not as good as the original Muppet Movie, and it's not even the best post-Henson film. That's still Muppet Christmas Carol, with its great Michael Caine Scrooge performance.

But I also don't want to sell the movie short. Almost every Muppet gets a spotlight moment, and even some lesser-known ones appear, like the eternally stuffy Wayne and Wanda. It's certainly the best family film of the year. It's certainly the most moving. I defy anyone over a certain age not to shed a tear when Kermit starts plucking the melody to "Rainbow Connection."

But there's another song from The Muppet Movie that springs to mind: the very last one in that film, but it applies well to this new one too: "Life's like a movie, write you own ending. Keep believing, keep pretending, we've done just what we set out to do - thanks to the lovers, the dreamers, and you."


Thursday, November 17, 2011

How to watch movies in Florida: Spies, bards and twisters!

By now, some of you may be wondering if I took a vacation from this blog. I can't blame you for thinking so. I took a vacation not only from this blog, but from life altogether, spending a lot of time in Florida with weddings on back to back weekends. I really need to convince my family and friends to marry in close proximity more often.

One reason I haven't been posting much lately is that the movies simply haven't been all that interesting this fall, even for a buff like me. In fact, the movies I saw Florida mostly continued the  lackluster trend.

J. Edgar: Here's a rare disappointment from director Clint Eastwood. I had greatly looked forward to this biopic on the longstanding and long notorious director of the FBI, because Eastwood can excel at period detail and historical sweep (see Letters from Iwo Jima), but this time the result is a tone-deaf misfire that's more along the lines of the middling Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It's not a complete loss; Leonardo DiCaprio's comitted performance in the lead makes the film quite watchable. But whenever the picture tries to deal with the seamier side of Hoover (repressed homosexuality, trasvestism) it feels strained and over the top. Dustin Lance Black's jumbled script bites off more than it can chew, and Eastwood's usual confidence falters. GRADE: C+

Anonymous: When I learned that master of disaster Roland Emmerich was making a Shakespeare movie, about a dozen question marks/exclamation points danced around my head. The idea seemed so bizarre, I couldn't resist checking the film out. And here's what's really strange: For one very brief moment, I thought "Wow - is Roland Emmerich going to outdo Clint Eastwood?"  Oh HELL no. Silly critic! Sure, the opening is a grabber, as we transition from a Broadway stage to the Elizabethan age. I felt transported, in more ways than one. After, the opening, sadly, the picture goes to pot, jumping back and forth in time like a flux capacitor with a short circuit. I got completely lost, and worse yet, didn't particularly care that I was lost. For all of Emmerich's efforts to step outside his comfort zone, his movie still left me with question marks and exclamation points dancing around my head. GRADE: D+

Take Shelter: Thankfully, the third movie turned out to be the charm. Michael Shannon once again excels playing an oddball, but what makes this film so intriguing is that it leaves one wondering just how much of an oddball he really is. He's not a bad man - he's a devoted husband and father. However, he becomes obsessed with strange apocalyptic visions and becomes convinced a literal storm is on its way. Even though he's already in a financially precarious position, he thinks he must complete an underground storm shelter. Is he really crazy (mental illness does run in his family) or is he strangely prescient? The movie is a touch too emotionally chilly, but overcoming that is a fine performance from Jessica Chastain, who is having a banner year with The Tree of Life and The Help already on her resume. GRADE: B+

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Horror-Thon 2011: Meet Tucker and Dale

You may have noticed I have not written much about new releases here of late. That's because the current cinematic landscape has been about as barren as Paris Hilton's intellect. There just isn't much out there.

That's why I was grateful to attend another Horror Marathon at the Little Art Theatre in Yellow Springs.  Horror has never been my favorite genre, but I like it when it works - and most of the movies the 'thon offered up did.

Rear Window - Not really a horror movie, and I already saw it once in a theater this year. But am I complaining? Oh HELL no!

BTW, the theater inadvertently offered up a lesson in how "flat" films are projected. Movies that are shot without a specific widescreen process shoot a full frame of film, which is square in shape. That excess image, which you are not supposed to see, (and which we briefly saw here)  is supposed to be masked by an aperture plate in the projector to produce a rectangular image. That's why, if you ever see boom mikes dropping into frame, it's not the fault of the people who made the movie - it's the fault of the projectionist, who has framed the image improperly.

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil: Without question, this was THE highlight of the marathon. I could see why this wildly entertaining spoof has developed such great buzz. It takes the old cliche of mean hillbillies vs. guileless college kids and turns it completely on its head by the end of the first reel. The movie walks the line brilliantly between fright and humor, never straying too far in either direction. Not only was it the best heretofore unseen film of the marathon, it's one of the best films I've seen this year. Read Leonard Maltin's piece about how the movie almost got away, thanks to a short-sighted distributor.

Attack the Block was an offbeat film about British hoodlums and how they tangle with nasty little alien beasties that fall from the sky like meteors and seem to be made mostly of teeth that glow in the dark. It's a solid film that's a little easier to admire than it is to love. I never cared about the characters as much as I wanted to, even though I found the offbeat approach praiseworthy. It struck me as something Danny Boyle might have made early in his career.

Zombie: And here's where I started to lose it. Lucio Fulci is considered a horror-master in some quarters, but I sure as hell can't see why. Yeah, it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to have a woman strip naked just so she can dive underwater and witness a zombie fighting with a shark - but that's about the only memorable scene in this snoozefest. Sadly, the movie reminded me of the clueless Italian hacks who made Troll 2, even if Fucli is at least technically competent.

Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein: It's too bad this very funny movie played when it did. Zombie had put most of the audience to sleep, so the reaction to this movie was subdued. It was quite the contrast to the crowd who ate it up in Columbus earlier this year.

Alien: Still scary. And still Ridley Scott's best film. And so, I thought it best to close the marathon with this movie, rather than sticking around for The Human Centipede II. I wanted to be able to eat later in the day.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Terminally affecting/irritating: 50/50 and Restless

Making a movie about terminal illness can be like walking a tightrope. Walk the line beautifully and you can make something powerful such as Terms of Endearment or Longtime Companion. Lose your balance and you end up with a noble movie no one wants to see (Funny People) or you fail outright (Autumn in New York, Sweet November, too many movies on Lifetime).

Two movies in theaters right now deal with the prospect of imminent death: 50/50 starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Restless, directed by Gus Van Sant. 50/50 walks its line gracefully, resulting in one of the most affecting films of the year. Restless, on the other hand, made me feel that very way.

Having Seth Rogen in your movie cracking jokes about the Big C may put some people off on first blush. But, in a refreshingly rare instance, the 50/50 trailer doesn't tell the whole story. Rogen has been close friends with  Will Reiser, who was diagnosed with cancer at an appallingly young age. This film is based on their real-life experiences.

What makes the film work is that even though it's viewed through  the lead characters' eyes, it's just as much about how his illness affects other people: How it forces Rogen's character to be more than a wisecracking jack-ass, how it forces his hovering mother (Anjelica Huston) to relinquish a little control, and how it exposes the true character of his girlfriend, played by Bryce Dallas Howard.

As I noted recently, Howard's turn as an odious social climber in The Help may cause her to be typecast as snotty bitches, and I'm sure 50/50's release so soon after The Help is by accident and not design. Yet to Howard's credit, her character is not inherently bad, it's more that she goes in over her head. The dynamics between her and Gordon-Levitt set the tension in the film.

Counterbalancing that tension is Anna Kendrick, who plays his inexperienced therapist, who, if memory serves, is actually younger than her patient.  It seems  like a contrivance that a patient with a rare form of cancer would be sent to a "teaching hospital," but the relationship that develops is touching enough that I didn't mind. 

In her Oscar-nominated role in Up in the Air, Kendrick played a woman with a brittle exterior masking a sensitive interior. Here, she plays the inverse: an outwardly sensitive woman who tries to put on an "impartial" exterior that is ill at ease with her heart. She's a fascinating character, and her pairing with Gordon-Levitt elevates 50/50.

Another young actress I very much admire, Mia Wasikowska, was my primary draw to Restless. She was the best thing about Tim Burton's muddled Alice in Wonderland, I loved her supporting work in The Kids are All Right, and her lead turn in this year's Jane Eyre. Unsurprisingly, I loved her character in Restless, but surprisingly, I rather disliked the movie.

The film's director is Gus Van Sant, who seems to be going for the sort of quirky/morbid vibe found in Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude. What we get instead  is an uncomfortable amalgam of Van Sant's mainstream hits (Good Will Hunting) and his more offbeat, indie fare (Paranoid Park).

Wasikowska shines in her part as a free spirit who has three months to live. She has taken to crashing funerals with a forlorn young man (Henry Hopper, son of the late Dennis) who had his own brush with death when his parents were killed in a car crash that sent him into a coma. He recovers physically, but not mentally until Wasikowska comes his way.

Wasikowska's Annabel is quirky but utterly lovable. She's the sort of person you want to hug for a long time. That being the case, many of the scenes with the couple are heartwarming.

Unfortunately, Van Sant and writer Jason Lew fail to find a shape for the material. They can't decide between straight ahead teenage angst and self-conscious oddity, and too often, the latter rules the day. Take, for example, the Battleship games Hopper always loses with his imaginary friend, who is a Japanese kamikaze pilot ghost.

See what I mean?

I didn't want Wasikowska to die. But I must confess that when the film came to its end, I was rather relieved.  In an incredible coincidence, one of Restless' producers is a Bryce Dallas Howard - whom I hope in the future will be as good at picking scripts as she is playing unsympathetic women.

50/50: A-

Restless: C+

Monday, October 10, 2011

Happy 20th Birthday, Sir Critic!

Happy Birthday to me,  Happy Birthday to me, Happy Birthday Sir Critic, Happy Birthday to me! Oh, it feels great to be 20!

Those of you who know me might be a bit confused. Yes, it is my birthday, this week, and I turn 41 - on Thursday. But it was 20 years ago today that my nom de plume, Sir Critic first made it into print.

I first reviewed films for my high school newspaper in the mid-80s, about the time I was really getting into movies.  But I didn't truly find my voice until a few years later when I started writing for The Guardian, Wright State University's student newspaper. By then I had gotten the nutty idea I had wanted to write about films for a living, so I joined the staff to start down that path.

When I saw Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King in 1991, the film powerfully affected me. I was taken with its zany and touching tale of knights and redemption. Running with the knightly theme, I decided to pull sort of a Sgt. Pepper and assume a sort of alter ego as a knight on a quest for a great movie. And so Sir Phil M. Critic was born. (Yes, he has a first name. Don't ask me what the middle initial means, though. It's like the "O" in David O. Selznick).

The review appeared on page 8 of the Oct. 10, 1991 issue. It went over so well that the name Sir Critic stuck. It became my handle when I first ventured onto this thing called the Internet a year later  - and the name became a part of my identity. It stayed with me when I wrote about movies for The Xenia Daily Gazette, various Cox newspapers, and this blog you're reading right now.

Looking at this review again, I'm still proud of it. Sure, it's a little gimmicky, but it demonstrates the way I break down movies in my mind as I try to figure out why the parts fit, or why they don't.  It's very me, in more ways than one.

So as I reflect back on 20 years of reviews, and I watch Robin Williams explain the Fisher King to Jeff Bridges in Central Park, I think about how lucky I've been. I've had a very trying year, which is why my posting has been erratic, but I'm doing my best to think positive now. I still haven't gotten that full-time job as a critic yet. Maybe I will, maybe I won't. But either way, I've been lucky to have a lot of great forums in which to writ, and a great audience, no matter what it's size. Thanks for reading me all these years.  Now find out how it all began ...


Once upon a time there was a knight called Sir Phil M. Critic who was on a quest to see and recommend to the masses some films about spiritual redemption.

Sadly, Sir Critic's quest had proven to be a dismal failure. Indeed, he saw many films that dealt with spiritual redemption, but only one of them, Dances with Wolves, had been truly remarkable to him. Still, the knight held out hope that would find at least one wondrous, spiritually redeeming movie. And so he did.

One day, Sir Critic heard about a film called The Fisher King. Its plot concerned a radio shock jock named Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) who makes on offhand remark to one of his listeners. That remark prompts that very disturbed listener to murder some yuppies and then himself. Stunned by this turn of events, Jack Wallows in despair for three years before attempting suicide.

Just as he is preparing to end his life, two local hoodlums attempt to accomplish that task for him. He is saved by a zany street man (Robin Williams) who calls himself Parry. Their meeting proves to dramatically change both men in many striking ways.

Sir Critic saw that this story, by Richard LaGravenese, was very unusual, but it certainly had potential. Upon learning that the film was to be directed by Terry Gilliam, though, he became concerned. While he had liked Gilliam's previous films (e.g. Time Bandits, Brazil) he was worried that Gilliam could not make a spiritually redeeming movie, considering his overwhelming visuals and often pessimistic attitude. When Sir Critic later journeyed to see the movie, he strode in the theater with a confident but concerned mind.

As the knight strode out of the theater, his mind was completely at ease. "Hark!" he told the masses. "Mister Gilliam has made not only a spiritually redeeming film, but a wondrously unique one as well. The entire cast was excellent, with Williams and Bridges doing some of their best work. Mister LaGravenese's script is actually quite reminiscent of Gilliams's work, in that it has a marvelous, strangely effective way of expressing deeply felt morals with extravagant methods. No other filmmakers could so easily realize such inventive ideas as there are in this picture.

But just as Sir Critic believed he was completely satisfied with the film, he noticed two dreadful-looking forms heading straight for him. "Zounds!" he exclaimed! Those are the dragons of rational thought - the ones who conspire to strip my opinions of all their positiveness!" Sure enough, the dragons began spouting their criticisms.

One charged, "Do you not realize it was a mistake for Gilliam's direction to be so heavy-handed in the early moments of the film?"The other protested, "Surely you say that the story's end was far too easy! It was harder to believe than the rest of the film!"

"You varlets!" shouted Sir Critic. "You shall not make me admire this film any less than I already do! The knight fought valiantly, but the dragons forced him to admit the film had its faults. Yet they had not totally defeated him. As he walked off to the horizon,  he still felt quite grand, thanks to the wild grandeur of The Fisher King.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

REVIEW: The Ides of March

Once we all get past the excitement of playing “spot the Miami University location” or “Did I just see my friend?” one very important question remains about George Clooney’s locally shot political drama, “The Ides of March.”

Is it a good movie?

The answer, for the most part, is a strong ''yes.’’ It doesn’t pack quite the punch I hoped it would, given the local anticipation and the movie’s sterling pedigree. Although most of the media attention has centered around Clooney, who co-wrote, directed and co-stars in the movie, “The Ides of March” is not really Clooney’s showcase as an actor.

That distinction belongs more to Ryan Gosling, who plays Stephen Myers, the idealistic young press secretary for a Democratic presidential candidate, Mike Morris (Clooney). Myers is so enamored with Morris he becomes quite sure that Morris is absolutely the right man to run the country.

It soon becomes evident, however, that Morris’ private face is not as ideal as his public one. As Morris’ indiscretions surface, Myers becomes involved in a tug-of-war between Morris’ campaign manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the cynical rival campaign manager, played by Paul Giamatti. Complicating matters even further is Myers’ dalliance with an alluring young intern (Evan Rachel Wood).

It all sounds like juicy grist for a story, and it is, to a point. But when the movie pulls the big reveal about Morris’ past, I was actually a little disappointed. The screenplay had done so well building up a level of intrigue that when it dropped the other shoe, I thought “That’s it? That’s the big, dark secret?” I won’t say what it is, but I will say it should come as no shock to anyone who wasn’t living under a rock in the 1990s.

I can’t say whether this is the fault of the source material, the play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon, or of the screenplay by Clooney and Grant Heslov, but at a crucial moment it lets the wind out of the movie’s sails.

Then, strangely, the wind doubles back.  It’s almost as if Clooney and Heslov know the twist is a bit hackneyed. They smartly kid it, and that gets the drama flowing again.

“The Ides of March” also stands as further proof that if Clooney ever pulls a Clint Eastwood and decides to direct more than act, he’ll have a solid career ahead of him. His directing  is assured, smart and subtle, and Clooney does a very solid job of capturing a particular mood.

That’s because Clooney’s primary strength as a director is in drawing great performances out of his cast.
Everyone here is on top of his or her game, especially Gosling, who always does a fine job of suggesting tensions that boil beneath the surface, and Wood, who always makes a striking presence, even in smaller parts.

One of the best things about “The Ides of March” is that it will get will people thinking and talking after it’s over — hopefully about more than whether you spotted your friend or not.


Friday, September 30, 2011

REVIEW: Moneyball

Most sports actively disinterest me. Baseball is one of the few exceptions.

But that's not why I loved Moneyball.

Director Bennett Miller has said that he hasn't really made a baseball movie, and he's right. Oh sure, the movie has some  baseball in it, but that doesn't make it a "baseball movie." A baseball movie is either about someone whose main occupation it is to play the game, or a movie in which the field action of baseball is central to the plot. Moneyball doesn't quite fit either description.

The story centers around a former player, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), but in the movie he's the general manager of the Oakland As. The story involves a lot of baseball mechanics but there's not a whole lot of on-field action. And in fact, those mechanics should be another strike against the movie for me. Mechanics in this case means statistics, and statistics mean math, to which I have a lifelong aversion. But the movie's not about math, either, thank goodness.

What makes Moneyball so ingenious is that the filmmakers have taken what was mostly a technical, mathematical book and have found the emotional through-line they needed to make it into a story - Billy Beane's story.

Beane in his youth was a promising player who chose playing baseball over a college scholarship. That decision came to haunt him. Once he got into the major leagues, Beane's potential vanished into a cloud of frustration. Not able to cut it as a player, he took a managing job with the A's instead. And it was there that he was faced with the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding his team in 2002 after his star players left for greener pastures and greener bank accounts.

The subtitle of the Moneyball book was "The Art of Winning an Unfair Game." Payroll-wise, the A's were more like the Z's. They simply didn't have the money to buy power players. After meeting economics major Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, playing a composite character), Beane comes to believe Brand's motto: "Your goal shouldn't be to buy players, your goal should be to buy wins." Brand's mathematical system values a player's ability to get on base above all else.

Of course, the system doesn't work at first, and the team's seasoned scouts scoff at Beane usurping years of tradition and intuition. Yet Beane scoffs at their antiquated system, in which the scouts actually consider the good looks of a player's girlfriend an important factor. But for Beane, the system means much more. It becomes a referendum on his own status. If he fails, he knows he's unemployable. And even more haunted to boot.

Two of our best screenwriters, Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), deserve a lot of credit for cruching the numbers even while finding the story's heart. So, too, does Brad Pitt. who delivers one of his most engaging, self-effacing turns. But Miller deserves even more credit than he's been getting.

His film Capote struck me as a tad dry. but here, Miller finds his visual and aural footing, cleverly using wide shots and silences to bring home Beane's feelings of isolation and alienation. It certainly helps that he picked a fine cinematographer, Wally Pfister, who is Christopher Nolan's regular cameraman.

In the end, Moneyball isn't as much about money or baseball as it is about redemption and validation. One can argue just how much of either Beane finally has, but this excellent film pitches a great story - even if it's not really a baseball movie.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Netflix redux

Since I opined about the Netflix split in my last post, I have run across a number of well-written commentaries about this dunderheaded Qwikster move. My favorite was a smart and pointed editorial by Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits, who wrote:

My personal opinion is that it's ill advised. There's still a lot of life in physical media yet - especially on the rental side. There's no shortage of DVD rental subscribers. I also strongly suspect the streaming/downloading future is nowhere near as simple and rosy as adherents wish to believe. Broadband infrastructure upgrades are still way behind here in the States, and Net metering alone could prove a show-stopper to this model. As more and more businesses push cloud services and streaming content, Internet access providers are going to start asking SOMEONE - either those offering the content or those consuming it or both - to pay for the true cost of the bandwidth they're using. That means added and fees for consumers and a LOT of them. Streaming movies might not be so appealing to cash-strapped consumes as the costs to enjoy it continue to rise. The other problem with streaming is that sooner or later, the content providers (read: the Hollywood studios) are going to realize that they don't need Netflix and other content delivery middle men anymore - they can simply create their own streaming services and maximize their own profits.

But Netflix's decision reflects the uncertainty all of the entertainment industry is feeling. As the world of entertainment content continues to go digital and online, and as physical media eventually takes a back seat over the next decade, nobody really knows exactly how much people are willing to pay for such content and how profitable it will be. Yes, people might pay $15 a month for downloading, but no one is going to pay $35.99 for a single movie download. Likewise, while CDs and hardback books once sold for $20 each, most music fans are eschewing albums for $.99 song downloads and most ebooks are $9.99 or less. Plus, Netflix can't exactly be reassured by the fact that the Post Office seems to be having ever growing difficulties and some politicians are actually calling for it to be abolished entirely. Mailing and distributing physical discs requires a LOT of costly infrastructure - tracking software, sorting machines, distribution centers. Yes, streaming requires infrastructure too, but a lot less of it. Which means lower costs. The bottom line is that from a purely business standpoint, Netflix's decision probably makes sense to them - especially in the long run. But in the meantime, a company that's already pissed off its customers en masse multiple times, is apparently happy to piss them off some more and is betting that it won't matter in the long run because they're the biggest player in the streaming/rental business. This is classic corporate arrogance, plain and simple. Maximize profits at all costs - even at the cost of consumer service and convenience.

The bottom line is that while downloading is awesome in many ways, it's not so awesome in others. Quality suffers, content can suffer, and LOTS of jobs are going to be lost. Physical media needs to be authored, manufactured, packaged, shipped and sold in real, physical places by real, physical people. Digital downloads are stored on a server and are sent by computer to your playback device at the click of a button - all by computer with just a very tiny fraction of the human involvement physical products require. If you're a corporate shareholder, that's awesome - pure profit. If you're someone whose job is no longer required, well... maybe not so much. This is the trade off we're making as a society and it seems we're just all going to have to get used to it because it's here to stay. Welcome to the 21st Century, folks!

So the question becomes, what do we do now? I wasn't mad at Netflix so much for the price increase. Handled badly though it was, the cold hard cash always comes streaming out of our pockets when times are tough, whether we like it or not. Netflix could and maybe should have softened the blow by increasing the price gradually, rather than dumping it on everyone all at once. But it's also worth noting that Netflix's long-standing low price enabled a lot of laziness in the customer base.

Stories abound of people keeping discs for weeks or months on end because a lot of people figured "Ah, it's only $10, $15 a month. What the hey." Believe me, I know. I was guilty of this a few times myself. But all I and others were doing was devaluing that incredible bargain we had. As long as I kept a few of those titles, I might as well have BOUGHT the damn things or stuffed a few extra dollars in those red envelopes. If a price increase actually prompts people to turn the discs around faster, everybody gets more value for their money. That's one of the few - and maybe the only benefit of the sticker shock.

All that said, Netflix has enough egg on its face to keep the Easter Bunny hopping for decades. And I rather agree with this EW writer that Netflix is essentially treating its disc-renting customers as second-class citizens. I'm considering dropping Qwikster/Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs/whatever and sticking with the streaming, especially since I just bought a Roku box. Might even drop cable since I hardly watch anything except TCM.

Still, I would like to have physical discs to fill the gaps in the streaming catalog - especially TCM fare. Forget Blockbuster - I still consider them an evil empire that rightly and justly had its head handed to it on a silver platter in a red envelope. Redbox can help with new releases, but what about that older catalog material I like? I may take EW's suggestion and go with GreenCine, which caters to cinephiles like me. The disadvantage there, I suppose is that GreenCIne doesn't have nearly as many distribution centers as Netflix does, so the turnaround won't be so Qwik - er, fast. Still, I do have a number of titles in my own collection I've not managed to watch yet - not to mention a load of DVD extras I've never checked out.

And speaking of checking out, there's always the good ol' public library, which usually has a pretty good selection of classic fare. After all, the library was my first job. Sometimes it's good to get back to where you once belonged, as a certain fab foursome said.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Netflix - Red for danger

Earlier this year, when Netflix hiked its prices and everybody complained, I rolled my eyes skyward at how spoiled people were acting. For years and years, customers had gotten quite a lot for next to nothing, so when they were asked to pay a bit more than next to nothing, they cried foul in droves.

I thought, and still think now, that people had lost all sense of perspective. If they were only paying $10 a month for unlimited movies, and then the price become something like $16 a month for unlimited movies, the bargain was STILL amazing. People used to pay a lot more than that per month at the ol' Blockbuster.

But no one remembered that. People cried like babies who'd just had their pacifiers snatched from their mouths. They reminded me of Louis CK's routine "Everything is amazing and nobody's happy." It sounded like people who moaned about the Wi-Fi on an airplane going out, and they forget they're in a chair in the sky. The world doesn't owe you a living, folks.

Now don't get me wrong. I know the economy's tough, and in times such as these, every penny counts. And I understand the principle that hiking your prices during a recession may not be the wisest business  decision in the world.

But remember what I said before about people losing perspective? I think readers should understand mine. You see, I'm not your average Netflix user. I don't flock to the New Release section for 99 percent of my viewing like most people do. I see most new movies I want to see in the theaters. If I had to guess, I'd say that 70 percent of my Netflix is catalog titles and 30 percent is new releases. And even that may be generous.

I go to Netflix to get the titles you can't get at Redbox or at the few brick and mortar places still in business. So for me,  me, paying $23 a month for a virtually unlimited selection of movies, many of which I can watch instantly, is a HELL of a deal. And that's true even if I was paying only $15 before. I'll eat the cost because I love movies.

But it's because I love movies that I find Netflix's response absolutely baffling. Basically, they've split into two companies. Netflix will now be the streaming-only service, and the classic disc by mail business will be spun off into an operation called Qwikster.

 Qwikster? What the hell is that? That name doesn't suggest movies and TV to me. That sounds like a name for someone who dumps flavored powder into milk.

But even more important than the name change is the operations change. Each customer who gets both services will now pay two bills. OK, annoying but not the end of the world. The bigger problem is that the sites will no longer be integrated.

So for example, if I go on Netflix, I see they have Steven Spielberg's first theatrical feature, The Sugarland Express. Oh, no, wait a minute. Like too many movies in the annoying Starz Play category, it's in the wrong aspect ratio. It's cutting off Spielberg's beautifully crafted images. Before I could always say, "No problem, I'll just dunk it in my disc queue." Oh, wait, not anymore. Now I have to jump through another hoop and find it on Qwikster.  Annoying.

Or let's take the flip of that example. Let's say I want to watch  Charge of the Light Brigade, with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Haviland. That was available on Instant. Oh, wait, it's not there anymore. Let's go to Qwikster. Damn, they don't have it anymore either. Now I've gone onto two sites and struck out, doubling my frustration. Guess I'll try my luck with TCM. Oh wait - I was considering dumping cable because I now have a Roku streaming box. THEN what do I do?

Now, I realize that my own argument could still make Louis CK scoff at me, just as I scoffed at others. Fair enough. But it's one thing to pass on the prices of streaming to customers. Regrettable as that is, that's expected. But it's a big mistake to compound that buy making your sites more difficult to use. AND dilute your brand at the same time.

So what's the next step? Since I have that streaming box now, I might keep Netflix and ditch Quixster for Redbox. But then Redbox won't have all those classic titles I like to watch. Gah!

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is damn lucky I love movies, because that love will probably compel me to keep both of his companies. Other customers haven't been, and won't be so loyal. I may stick around, but I'm disgruntled. I agree with columnist David Poland, who writes that Hasting's email to customers ought to have said this:

“Dear Netflix Customer… we loved being in the DVD business, but it is no longer financially viable… for anyone. We’re as sorry as you are. It is where we have lived all these years and built a great relationship with you, our subscribers. But the simple truth is, we cannot move forward if we live in the financial structure of the past. Shipping and distribution centers and competition from new delivery systems, including our own streaming build-out, have made the great deal we have offered you all these years impossible. And the streaming business can expand to the entire planet… all we have to do is to pay for content rights for each country, which is still remarkably cheap in most places (at least until we raise that bar).

We believe we can sustain a DVD shipping business for a couple of more years and we are going to keep offering that option to you for as long as we can. It will cost you a little more, but there is no bargain like it.

We know the future is streaming. But this is also a very expensive proposition. We are working hard to deliver as much high quality streaming content as possible. If you choose to stream only with us, there will be a lot less product available than you are used to from the DVD-to-you business. But it’s still a better value proposition than any other streaming company in the world. It is our commitment to remain the biggest, best, most easily accessed streaming media company on the planet at an incredibly affordable price of less than $10 month.

Honestly yours,
Reed Hastings”

At least the pill would have been easier to swallow - with or without the Qwik.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Deathmatch! Zac Efron vs. Marlon Brando!

Some time back I read a very entertaining piece by a British critic named Mark Kermode, who waxed sardonic about the lamentable state of movies today. This particular passage  made me laugh out loud:

If you want kids' movies in which cameras crawl up young women's skirts while CGI robots hit each other over the head, interspersed with jokes about masturbation and borderline-racist sub-minstrelsy stereotyping, then Bay is your go-to guy. He is also, shockingly, one of the most commercially successful directors working in Hollywood today, a hit-maker who proudly describes his visual style as "fucking the frame" and whose movies appear to have been put together by people who have just snorted two tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium.

Yes, yes, I remember, I actually liked Transformers: Dark of the Moon earlier this year. But that was mainly because shooting in 3D forced Bay to edit his film like he'd snorted only one tonne of weapons-grade plutonium. He may  occasionally be able to pull a coherent action scene out of his ass, but he still has all the narrative skill of a lemming cascading over a cliff.

To hear Kermode tell it, maybe I really didn't like Transformers 3 after all. He says that to one degree or another, even educated film folk like me have become too forgiving of blockbusters. It's OK, they're supposed to be dumb.

Bollocks, says Kermode.

This has become the shrieking refrain of 21st-century film (anti)culture – the idea that critics are just too clever for their own good, have seen too many movies to know what the average punter wants, and are therefore sorely unqualified to pass judgment on the popcorn fodder that "real" cinema-goers demand from the movies.
This is baloney – and worse, it is pernicious baloney peddled by people who are only interested in money and don't give a damn about cinema. The problem with movies today is not that "real" cinema-goers love garbage while critics only like poncy foreign language arthouse fare. The problem is that we've all learned to tolerate a level of overpaid, institutionalised corporate dreadfulness that no one actually likes but everyone meekly accepts because we've all been told that blockbuster movies have to be stupid to survive. Being intelligent will cause them to become unpopular. Duh! The more money you spend, the dumb and dumberer you have to be. You know the drill: no one went broke underestimating the public intelligence. That's just how it is, OK?
Well, actually, no. You want proof? OK. Exhibit A: Inception.

He'll get no argument out of me there, said a guy who named Inception the best film of 2010.

Kermode's article was an excerpt from his new book, The Good, the Bad and the Mutiplex: What's Wrong with Modern Movies? The excerpt was so insightfully pungent, so I decided to give the book a try, downloading a sample onto my tablet. And wow. Kermode certainly has a sharp wit, but also a bit of a knack for well-read bullshit. He dares to compare Marlon Brando to Zac Efron - with Mr. Brando as the loser. Kermode writes of Efron:

He's young, he's talented he can sing, dance and act, and when I met him once (briefly), he was sweet, gracious, charming and very lovely to be around ... You can smirk all you want, but to my mind Efron is a reminder of the kind of fully rounded star appeal which was required of screen actors before Marlon Brando somehow managed to bamboozle everyone into believing that true talent meant mumbling and snorting like you've got a mouthful of cake, turning up late to work because you've been researching your role in the cafeteria, and refusing to accept Oscars because you don't like cowboys and Indians movies. For the record, Marlon Brando was a fool whose growing contempt for his audience caused them to stay away from his later pictures in droves ... rather than being the greatest actor of his generation, Brando was actually Ron Burgundy. 

Wow. That's gotta be written under the influence of a half-tonne of weapons-grade plutonium.

In fairness, there's more than a kernel of truth to what Kermode is saying. It's all too easy to snigger at Efron, but the kid is a genuine talent. He held his own in a movie called Me and Orson Welles, the title of which should tell you everything you need to know. And it is also true that Brando's latter-day antics make Tom Cruise seem rational by comparison. But any sane person, including Mr. Efron, I'm sure, knows whose legacy is more valuable.

It also must be said  that most of the movies that made Mr. Efron famous are every bit as prefabricated as anything Michael Bay ever shot. Or maybe Mark Kermode doesn't really like High School Musical. He just thinks he does.

Regardless, I'm going to read the rest of his book. Anybody this incisively insane has gotta be worth more posts.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Back to the Favorites!

I freely admit, I have a bad habit of leaving projects unfinished. Alas, one of these projects has been this very blog. 

Granted, I've been through a lot of trials this year, not the least of which was a tree falling through my house and briefly giving me the unusual feature of being able to see my living room from my bedroom. More recently, at my job, I find myself having to move from the entertainment beat to the education beat. 

Neither of these was a change that I expected, but I am making the best of both. My house has mostly been repaired, and the good news is that since I'm not writing about entertainment as much at work, I will be writing more often about it here.

In so doing, I will pick up one of those unfinished projects from this very blog. Quite some time back, I asked several of you to submit lists of your favorite films to me. In turn, I would comment on the list and maybe even gain some new viewing material in the bargain. And so would you, I hope! 

My friend Martha had been so enthusiastic about the idea that she submitted no less than THREE lists. Believe me, I can relate. When you're a film nut, it's kinda hard to narrow things down. 

Nevertheless, I will start narrowing down Martha's favorites, with the first of her lists. The titles are hers, the comments are mine. 

Ride the High Country - Just watched this for the first time recently. It's great to see two old pros like Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott go at it. It's also fun to see director Sam Peckinpah start to bend the conventions of the Western genre - you can see the road to The Wild Bunch begin here.

Elizabethtown - Sad to say, this is my least favorite Cameron Crowe film. He went so far into himself in this one, he got lost - so much so that his usually reliable soundtrack choices were disappointing. "Pride (In the Name of Love)" playing during a trip to the Civil Rights Museum? That's a liiiiiitle too on the nose, Cam.Breakfast at Tiffany's - Essential viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in Audrey Hepburn - but ye gods, Mickey Rooney's Asian caricature is the nadir of this film, and his career.

Casablanca - Bogie and Bergman rule - and Claude Rains matches them.
From Here to Eternity - Terrific acting from the largest role to the smallest. But I have to say I have a soft spot for Donna Reed, who can't help but be lovable, even when playing a woman of ill repute.

Suddenly, Last Summer - Another terrific acting showcase - particularly for how Liz Taylor more than holds her own with the great Kate.
The Green Pastures - This film buff has to admit he had never heard of this one. But Bible stories from the perspective of blacks - in 1936, no less - certainly sounds interesting.

Driving Miss Daisy - Too many people decry this as the "nice" civil rights film that came out the same year as Do the Right Thing. There's much more to this story than that broad brush will paint.

Fried Green Tomatoes - Believe it or not, I've never seen Miss Tandy's follow-up to Driving Miss Daisy. Come to think of it, I've never even tried a fried green tomato either.

The Green Mile - Hmmm. More green. I like the film a pretty good deal, but I thought the sequences with the "old" Tom Hanks were a bit much.

It Happened One Night: You know those cliches you saw in the last Hollywood rom-com? Most of them came from this movie.
Moulin Rouge (1952) - This is the John Huston picture, not the hyperactive Baz Luhrmann musical. But I've always wanted to see it, particularly because of the way it drains the color palette, which was daring for a film of that time.  

My Favorite Wife - I prefer The Awful Truth, but this is delightful too.
Paper Moon - Tatum O Neal didn't get her Oscar just because she was cute. She got it because she jolly well deserved it. And I was rather delighted to see they still make Nehi.
Sullivan's Travels: "There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan."

O Brother Where Art Thou?: Hmmm. I wonder HOW Martha got from the last film to this film ...

Do the Right Thing: 

Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys a community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn't mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don't even call it violence when it's self-defense, I call it intelligence.- Malcolm X

The truth of this film lies in the distance between those two quotes.

Peggy Sue Got Married: This film, from one of Francis Ford Coppola's "I'll direct anything as long as they pay me" phases, gets a lot of juice from Kathleen Turner's wonderful performance. But it also hits a lot of sour notes thanks to Nicolas Cage's truly annoying performance. 

The Shawshank Redemption: I remember when I saw this film once in the theater, two of the reels were transposed. How did I know this?  Because Raquel Welch came before Marilyn Monroe on the wall.

More from Martha later. In the meantime, if you'd still like to submit a favorites list, feel free to do so in the comments. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Top 13 films of the fall/Holiday season

As the mercury begins to drop, along with the leaves on the trees, the focus in Hollywood turns away from popcorn and more toward Oscars. So I scoured the fall/holiday movie release schedule and came up with 13 titles I’m particularly looking forward to seeing. Aren’t we lucky?

In order of release, with dates subject to change:  
Contagion: The “disease that kills everyone” movie has been made a number of times, but when Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon star, and Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”) directs, I can only be intrigued.  (Sept. 9)

Moneyball: Although I like baseball, I can’t call myself a rabid fan. And I care even less about the world of finance. This movie, starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, combines both. That sounds like it could be poison, but the story of how the Oakland As used computers to draft players sounds fascinating, even to a non sports/finance fan like me. Bennett Miller ("Capote") directs, and Aaron Sorkin ("The Social Network") and Steven Zaillian ("Schindler's List") write.  (Sept. 23)

The Ides of March: Even if George Clooney hadn’t shot his political drama at Miami University earlier this year, I would still want to see a movie with a cast that also includes Ryan Gosling, Evan Rachel Wood and Marisa Tomei. Since he did shoot at Miami, and I didn’t get to see the filming, I’m all over this one. (Oct. 7)

 J. Edgar: Clint Eastwood directs Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays the infamous FBI Chief. Good enough for me. (Nov. 9)

The Descendants: Yes, George Clooney stars in two movies I’m anxious to see this fall. In this one, he stars as a man trying to reconnect with his daughters and learns his wife was cheating on him. Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) directs for the first time in a too long while.  (Nov. 23)

Hugo: Yes, the director of such violent classics as “Taxi Driver,” “Goodfellas” and “The Departed” tries his hand at a family film, and shoots it in 3D to boot. Better yet, the very talented Chloe Moretz (“Let Me In”) stars. This could be either wonderful or a maddening misfire; any way you slice it, it has to be fascinating. (Nov. 23)

The Muppets: Here is the movie I am most looking forward to this fall. I’ve been a Muppets fan all my life, and it seems like they’re on the rebound after churning out subpar material like “Muppets from Space” and “Muppets Wizard of Oz.” That this co-stars my favorite actress, Amy Adams, only sweetens the deal. (Nov. 23)

The Artist: Here’s the arthouse film I most want to see: A modern-day silent and black and white movie about a silent film star facing the arrival of talking pictures.(Nov. 23)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: I was a great fan of the foreign trilogy starring Noomi Rapace, and now “the feel-bad movie of Christmas” is being directed by David Fincher (“The Social Network”) Yes, please. (Dec. 21)

Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol: Too many people scoff at this franchise and at Tom Cruise, but the trailer for this looks like loads of fun to me, and it’s shot partly in IMAX too, just like “The Dark Knight.” Brad Bird (“The Incredibles” - yes, he's moving from animation to live action) directs. (Dec. 21)

The Adventures of Tintin: I’ve not been a great fan of the motion-capture style of animation used in movies like “Beowulf” and the “Christmas Carol” with Jim Carrey, but when a master of visuals like Steven Spielberg is at the helm, I have to give it a chance. (Dec. 22)

We Bought a Zoo: Cameron Crowe hasn’t directed since the misguided “Elizabethtown” and hasn’t made a truly great movie since “Almost Famous.” I’d say he’s due. Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson star.(Dec. 23) 

War Horse: Spielberg double dose! Having plumbed World War II several times, the director turns his atttenton to World War I and the story of a boy and his horse who serve in the trenches. The trailer looks gorgeous. (Dec. 28)

Monday, August 29, 2011

(The) Help! That dastardly Howard!

The Wicked Witch of the West. Darth Vader. Nurse Ratched. Hannibal Lecter. And now, joining their ranks, Hilly Holbrook from The Help!

(Trumpet flourishes, followed by crickets)

Wait, sweet little Bryce Dallas Howard played one of the most dastardly villains of all time?

Well, yes, I would argue she has. No, she's not quite up there with Margaret Hamilton just yet, but as millions of people who have seen The Help know, Howard filled her villainous heels quite well. Maybe a little TOO well.

I seriously cannot remember the last time I felt that much seething hatred for a female character. Hell, the last time I hate a male character that much, it was Will Ferrell in Bewitched - and he wasn't trying to be hateful, which only made me want to snap his neck that much harder.

And yet, now that I think about it, that's really the secret to what makes Hildy so awful. There's no doubt that this relentless social climber does some extraordinarily mean and spiteful things. But what makes them mean and spiteful is the fact that she's actually not always trying to be mean and spiteful. In a way, she can't help it.

Part of the problem is that Hildy's a product of her times. She's one of the worst kind of racists - one who doesn't think she is. She feels that because she gives them a good job in a nice house that's help enough to them. Doesn't matter that she treats them like dirt most of the time, she's doing them a FAVOR! She's like one of those hypocrites who goes to church week in and week out, acts all pious that day, and then acts like an ass the other six days of the week.

So yes, when Hildy gets her "just desserts" (you know exactly what I mean if you know the story) there's a certain gleeful satisfaction in her comeuppance. But what sells Howard's performance isn't outright villainy. It's the fact that Howard lets us see the cracks beneath the surface. She makes it readily apparent that Hilly is so hateful because she hates herself above everyone else. And that, in the end, is her tragedy.

When I came out of the film, I feared for Howard's safety. So palpable was her hatefulness that I was afraid irate women might try to whomp her over the head with their purses - or maybe with their cell phones. At first, Howard seemed destined to be typecast as the ethereal waif in the likes of The Village, or Clint Eastwood's Hereafter. Now she might be in danger of getting typecast as the bitch.

And you know what? That's still an upgrade for Howard. Even before she became an actress, she was cursed with the middle name of the city in which Opie conceived her. Now, she has something to sink her teeth into and is less likely to get lost as "the girl" in Spider-Man 3 or Terminator Salvation.

You've come a long way, Bryce - you're one of the best assets of this movie that fully deserves its status as a sleeper hit. Glad to see people are waking up to you.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Catching up on catching up - small screen viewing

And now, movies I've seen on the small screen, since I last blogged about such things:

Gasland A-
Kind of an EPA companion piece to Charles Ferguson's Inside Job - and more evidence that Big Money wins out over the little guy - even when the damage is quite clear and convincing. Its amateurish "who me" approach could have been a liability, but it actually works to the movie's benefit. 

The Next Three Days C+
Well-made decently acted thriller with an intriguing premise, but the execution simply strains credibility past the point of no return. Good performances by Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks deserve a better vehicle.

Soul Surfer B-
If I were grading this movie by its sincerity, it would definitely be in the A-range. And there can be no doubt that the story of a teen surfer who rebounded after losing her arm to a tiger shark is inspiring. Unfortunately, the movie pushes too many manipulative buttons to ring completely true. A strong performance by AnnaSophia Robb helps keep it afloat.

Ride the High Country B+
An early Sam Peckinpah western gets most of its juice from seeing two old-timers like Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott face off. The story occasionally lags and the ending is a bit abrupt, but it's fascinating to see the seeds of The Wild Bunch being planted here. 

Shock Corridor B+
Fascinating Sam Fuller pulp that I watched not long after revisiting One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The premise (reporter fakes being mentally ill to crack a murder case) requires more suspension of disbelief than I was willing to give. Still, the acting and the visuals are powerful, particularly when stock color sequences break up the black and white. 

Godspell B+
This was on the same night as Norman Jewison's Jesus Christ Superstar, and comparing the two pictures is very telling. Godspell is just as dated as Superstar, perhaps even more so with all those afros. But Godspell is a much livelier picture because A) The song score is considerably superior, and B) Godspell wasn't so ponderous, slackly paced and convinced of its own self-importance. Godspell is especially valuable as an NYC time capsule.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Rise of the slumbering blogger: Catching up filmically

Saturday I cleaned up real cobwebs at my house. Today I clean off virtual cobwebs on this blog. Many distractions have set in that put me out of the swing of things. Now it's time to get back into the swing of things and not look back - except for this update on the big-screen movies I've seen since I've last posted. And I'm including films I've seen in the classic series in Dayton and Columbus.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest A+
One of three movies to win the top five Oscars of Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay. The writing of this film becomes all the more impressive once you realize the book was written from the point of view of the Chief

Winnie the Pooh B
Sweet, gentle fun - a very pleasant throwback to the Disney movies of old, with this entry being animated by the A-crew at the Mouse House. It rarely manages to be more than pleasant, but that seems appropriate for such an assuming character as Pooh. Eeyore (voiced by Pixar's Bud Luckey) provides most of the laughs.

Cowboys and Aliens C+

Indiana Jones and James Bond in the same movie. How can it miss? By being saddled with a confused script that manages to be overwrought and half-baked at the same time. It's fairly decent as a Western, but the more aliens there are, the more unfocused it gets. Very disappointing.

Beginners A
With its often whimsical tone and its scattered chronology, this picture could have gone wrong in all sorts of ways but holds steady, thanks mostly to strong performances by Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer and Melanie Laurent in a story about a man struggling to come to grips with his father coming out of the closet late in life. It's especially nice to see Laurent get a good vehicle after her breakout in Inglourious Basterds.

The Adventures of Robin Hood A+
You simply cannot fully appreciate this movie until you've seen it on the big screen with a crowd applauding Errol Flynn's every swashbuckle.

Crazy Stupid Love B+
A terrific cast including Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Marisa Tomei and Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone powers this episodic ensemble piece about love lost and found in unlikely places. The performances help overcome some slightly ungainly writing, especially an icky subplot about a teenage girl's crush on a 40-something.

The Wizard of Oz A+
Once again, you simply cannot fully appreciate this movie unless you've seen on it on a big screen in a packed house with Technicolors that are practically blinding.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes A-
 What seemed like a misguided idea for a reboot has turned into the summer's most pleasant surprise. Special effects movies often fail because the effects are more interesting than the humans, but in this context, it's actually quite appropriate.  Terrific motion capture work by Andy Serkis (AKA Gollum AKA King Kong) and smartly choreographed action sequences make this trump not only the Tim Burton remake, but even the 1968 original as well.