Monthly Archives: March 2010

Education

 

When I read that Nick Hornby, a favorite writer of mine, had written the screenplay for An Education, my spirits rose.  Who better, I thought, to translate a coming-of-age memoir about a 16-year-old girl in 1961 London than Hornby, an aging male Baby Boomer like myself?

Yeah, right.

But does Hornby pull it off?  Mostly.  I thought An Education was touching, funny, and with a few exceptions, true.  Is it true to teenage-girl life, circa 1961?  Were parents of teenage girls as naïve as they are in this film?  I have no idea.  I’d have to consult with a group of 16-year-old girls, or girls who were 16 fifty years ago.  What I do know is that the film is witty and the performances are captivating.

Carey Mulligan, as young Jenny, might have lost out on an Oscar this year, but I don’t think there’s much question we’ll be seeing a lot more of her.  An Education is really just soap opera, a morality tale about making bad choices and living with consequences; in other words, it’s a film we’ve seen many times before.  But it’s a story that never grows old because it’s a story that never changes, whether it’s 1961 or 2010.  At least I think so.  I’ll have to consult with some teenage girls.     Grade:  B

 

Director:  Lone Scherfig  Cast:  Peter Sarsgaard, Carey Mulligan, Alfred Molina, Rosamund Pike, Dominic Cooper, Olivia Williams, Cara Seymour, Emma Thompson, Matthew Beard, Sally Hawkins  Release:  2009

 

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Cat1

    

Poor Jane Fonda.  1965’s Cat Ballou was supposed to be a star vehicle for Henry Fonda’s daughter but, although she’s very good in the comedy, upstart Lee Marvin wound up stealing the show (and an Oscar) with his portrayal of a drunken ex-gunslinger.  Then, adding insult to injury, Jane’s ad campaign was apparently run by the sexist gang from AMC’s Mad Men.  Check out the poster pictured below.  Then watch the movie free of charge by going here. 

 

Cat2       Cat3

               

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by Michael Lewis

Big Short

                                                

When Wall Street premiered in 1987, Oliver Stone’s movie was pitched as a morality tale.  Its lesson was that when greed gets the upper hand, bad things happen.  In reality, the movie served as a “how-to” guide for aspiring Gordon Gekkos.  Michael Lewis, in his book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, laments the fact that his previous expose of Wall Street, Liar’s Poker, had the same unintended consequences:  It inspired materialistic-minded future Gekkos.

The Big Short’s topic, global financial failure, is not only depressing but ongoing.  Most books need some semblance of a hero, but Lewis had to scrape to find protagonists for this story.  He discovered a handful of small-timers who, through sheer gumption, hard work, and contrariness, managed to make killings out of Wall Street’s meltdown.  These men appeal to the underdog-loving Lewis, but it’s hard to disguise the fact that even these guys acted more out of self-interest than any sense of social responsibility.

But my biggest obstacle to fully appreciating The Big Short is related to something that contributed to the financial crisis in the first place:  the onslaught of insider jargon, economic voodoo theories, and meaningless acronyms geared to befuddle anyone lacking an economics degree.  As a reader, I became exasperated by the financial hocus-pocus and simply wanted to just walk away from it.  In other words, it engendered in me the same attitude that allowed Wall Street hooligans to swindle so many others.

 

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Siskel

 

The balcony has closed on At the Movies, and Web sites like Rotten Tomatoes are shouldering some of the blame.  Apparently, a lot of folks prefer to get their cinematic guidance from people like Catherine, a 20-something from England who is one of my “friends” on Tomatoes and who lists movies like Ghost among her all-time favorites.  Sigh.

At least you can’t blame my reviews for the demise of At the Movies.  I’m guessing that my site gets fewer visits than Tiger Woods gets from his mother-in-law.

For me, At the Movies lost its must-see-TV status back in 1999, when Gene Siskel died.  It’s not that subsequent critics weren’t knowledgeable, it’s just that when Siskel and Roger Ebert ceased sparring, the magic was gone.  Perhaps Catherine can get her own show ….

 

*****

 

Tan

 

Tucker Carlson was on Red Eye carping about how all too often when we need to raise taxes, we raise it on whomever or whatever happens to be unpopular.  Carlson proposed, I assume facetiously, that we tax children, nuns, and mothers.

I might not go that far.  But as a smoker, I feel Carlson’s point and I can see how tanners might get burned up over a proposed tax on them.  On the other hand, look at the woman in the picture above.  Doesn’t she look smug?  I don’t like her.  Let’s tax her.

 

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Let Right

 

One sign of a great movie is the images it leaves with you.  My favorite visual from Let the Right One In occurs in a swimming pool near the end of the film … but describing it would be a spoiler, so I’ll refrain.

Another indicator that a foreign film excels is when Hollywood announces plans for a remake.  Sadly, just such a plan is in the works for this brilliant Swedish movie from 2008.  But for now, we can still appreciate the original.

So how does this movie stand apart from the glut of other vampire films?  It is certainly not the scariest vampire movie you’ll ever see, but it might be the best.  A lot of the credit goes to Lina Leandersson’s performance as Eli, the young heroine with a taste for blood.  I’m not sure why, but prepubescent females make for some of the most frightening characters in horror.  I’m thinking of Linda Blair in The Exorcist, and the girl climbing through a television in The Ring.  Maybe it’s because in real life, young females are the least threatening members of society, and so when they do turn on you ….

Let the Right One In has more than strong performances; it has Swedish atmosphere, always cold, quiet, and creepy.  And director Tomas Alfredson does not rush things (I’ll bet the American remake won’t pause for a second).  Oh, and did I mention that this film is also a haunting love story?     Grade:  A-

 

Director:  Tomas Alfredson  Cast:  Kare Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar, Henrik Dahl, Karin Bergquist, Peter Carlberg, Ika Nord, Karl-Robert Lindgren  Release:  2008

 

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And Then1

 

Who among us, in our misspent youth, has not hunched over a game board and contemplated Colonel Mustard doing something nasty with a lead pipe in a conservatory?  “Clue” fans and Agatha Christie buffs, And Then There Were None is the movie for you.  Christie’s classic whodunit has been filmed many times, but no version can match director Rene Clair’s tongue-in-cheek delight from 1945.

A group of strangers is summoned to a barren island and, sequestered in a cliffside mansion staffed by two servants, the guests are bumped off, one by one.  Clair’s actors play all of this straight-faced, but the movie is loaded with sly wit and humor.  And these really are the characters from “Clue.”  Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Roland Young, June Duprez, C. Aubrey Smith, Judith Anderson, and Richard Haydn are all outstanding.

My only quibble is that, typically for films of that time, Christie’s ending has been altered.  Rest assured, there is no happy ending for the young lovers in the book.     Grade:  A-

 

And Then3    And Then2

 

Director:  Rene Clair  Cast:  Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Louis Hayward, Roland Young, June Duprez, C. Aubrey Smith, Judith Anderson, Richard Haydn, Mischa Auer  Release:  1945

 

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by Ernest Hemingway

Old

 

It’s funny.  You go back and read the critical reaction to Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Old Man and the Sea, and you learn that some critics saw it as a vengeful allegory — Hemingway placing himself in the shoes of an old man who battles on, despite being constantly assailed by outside forces (in this case, Hemingway critics).  Other analysts were struck by the story’s religious significance, especially in a passage in which Santiago, the “old man,” alludes to his crucifixion.

But in rereading the novella, I think of it first and foremost as the middle link in a trifecta of epic man-versus-sea-monster sagas.  First Ahab and his great white whale, then Hemingway’s Santiago and the sharks, and finally that Hollywood bad boy, “Bruce the Shark” in Spielberg’s Jaws.  Critics don’t seem all that interested in what might be Old Man’s strongest asset — it’s a gripping adventure tale.

 

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Blind

 

Since The Blind Side is purportedly about football, allow me to divide the film into halves:  The movie scores in its first half, but develops a severe case of fumble-itis in the second half.  Half One works well because it skillfully manipulates the audience.  There is nothing wrong with that.  All movies “manipulate” the audience — that’s what directors and editors are paid to do.  It’s only when we don’t care for a flick that we use the “M” word derisively. 

Blind Side gets off to its great start on the strength of star Sandra Bullock’s charisma.  Bullock is the queen of feistiness and the half-smile.  Her youngest child says something precocious?  Cut to a Bullock half-smile.  Her husband does something endearingly stupid?  Close-up shot of that half-smile.

Into Bullock’s charmed, upper-middle-class life comes Michael Oher, a teenaged giant from the Memphis slums with a teddy-bear personality and no place to sleep at night.  Bullock and her brood take the kid in.  I haven’t read the Michael Lewis book upon which  Blind Side is based but, according to critics who have, what follows in the film is very loosely based on the truth.  Young Michael’s adaptation to the privileged, white world of the Tuohy family was not so tidy in reality.

But no matter.  This is a Hollywood movie, and director John Lee Hancock’s artistic liberties make for a touching and funny first half.  Ironically, The Blind Side starts to collapse the minute its focus turns to football.  No amount of manipulation can change the feeling that we’ve seen this plot many times before, and even Bullock’s charm can’t stave off the staleness.     Grade:  C+

 

Director:  John Lee Hancock  Cast:  Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Kathy Bates, Quinton Aaron, Jae Head, Lily Collins  Release:  2009

 

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by Sam Lipsyte

Ask

 

Milo Burke, the middle-aged, failed artist protagonist of Sam Lipsyte’s new novel, is the kind of New Yorker you like to visit but don’t want to live with.  For the first 75 pages of The Ask, I had to ask myself if I really wanted to spend the next 225 pages with the class smartass that is Burke.  Sure, Milo is often hilarious (think Groucho Marx let loose in a diversity-training class), but geez, too much of that can send you screaming to the wheat fields of Kansas.

But gradually, inexorably, Lipsyte adds substance to his story.  There’s more to Milo than his dead-end job at a “mediocre” college fundraising office, and his interactions with his drifting wife, an amputee Iraq war vet, and a rich friend from his college past transform The Ask from mere screwball ranting into something deeper and more satisfying.

 

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Thunderbolt

 

In 1974, Clint Eastwood was fresh off the success of Dirty Harry, not to mention all those spaghetti Westerns he starred in.  Jeff Bridges was … well, the son of that guy who starred in Sea Hunt on TV.  Inexplicably, Eastwood was paired with Bridges for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, an out-of-nowhere comedy-drama about a thief (Eastwood) teaming up with a drifter (Bridges) to locate some hidden loot.  So guess who steals the movie?  Watch it free by going  here.

 

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