Monthly Archives: March 2010

Ghost Writer

 

There is a car chase in Roman Polanski’s new thriller, The Ghost Writer.  As car chases go, it’s not much of one.  It’s over shortly after it begins, and there are no crashes.  You have to wonder if it was inserted at the studio’s behest, something to spice up the trailers and lure in Joe and Mary Sixpack.  Having made that observation,  I’ll say The Ghost Writer is one of the year’s best movies.

That’s because Polanski, that old pro, has delivered a first-class psychological thriller, or, on second thought, a mental thriller.  The exiled director gathered a veteran cast, moved filming to Northern Europe (the story takes place on the U.S. east coast), and then assembled the pieces of his puzzle with loving attention to detail.

Ewan McGregor is a perfect everyman, an innocuous (and unnamed, in the story) ghost writer surrounded by perilous people and perilous places.  McGregor’s writer finds himself embroiled in not just a political whodunit, but also a “whatdunit,” and Polanski’s cast members — Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson, and Robert Pugh, in particular —  all ooze menace.

The movie is a tad too long and it could do with one or two less red herrings, but it’s something all too rare at today’s cineplex:  a thriller that doesn’t need any damn car chases.      Grade  B+

 

Director:  Roman Polanski  Cast:  Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, Eli Wallach, James Belushi, Timothy Hutton, Tom Wilkinson  Release:  2010

 

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 .                                       Cruise

 

Obesity in America

 

I feel sorry for today’s youngsters in their battle to stave off obesity.  If I had such a cool array of electronic toys to play with when I was a child, I’d probably be at least 50 pounds overweight today.  So would Tom Cruise (above).

 

 

Bullocka           Bullockb

 

                                      Sex Scandal in America

 

Lots to choose from:  Tiger Woods and his porn star; Rielle Hunter and GQ; Sandra Bullock and Jesse James.  Apparently CNN’s Mike Galanos is a close personal friend of Bullock, because he shared this insight:  “She [alleged homewrecker Michelle McGee] couldn’t be more different than Sandra Bullock.  Who in their right mind cheats on Sandra Bullock?”

So I guess Bullock is an idiot.  Are we supposed to believe that she had absolutely no idea what James was like, or what his past was like, before she married him?  My guess is that she’s nowhere near the saint that her image, and Mike Galanos, would have us believe.

 

*****

 

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Tom Brokaw:  Silly me.  I figured it was a broadcasting-school prerequisite that you must be able to speak coherently, rather than as if your mouth was filled with mashed potatoes.

 

Matthews

 

Chris Matthews:  I’d change the name of his show to “The No-Spit Zone.”  I am surprised we can actually see Matthews on screen, given the amount of spittle he must spray over MSNBC cameras.  Find a better dentist, dude.

 

OReilly

 

Bill O’Reilly:  O’Reilly must have been endlessly caned by the Catholic nuns who oversaw his education.  The man is actually least frightening when he’s screaming at a guest; it’s when he smiles, donning his faux-grandfather demeanor, that you know it’s time to run.

 

Olbermann

 

Keith Olbermann:  Olbermann strikes me as a walking, talking nervous breakdown.  Olbermann’s father died recently, and that’s too bad, but listening to him rant, we might believe that Republican opposition to Obamacare is a personal assault on the memory of his dad.

 

Hannity

 

Sean Hannity:  Hannity invites lots of pretty girls to his show, like conservative blogger S.E. Cupp and disgraced beauty queen Carrie Prejean.  This makes no sense to me, because these ladies present eye-candy competition for Hannity, who appears to spend more time in front of a mirror than Dudley Do-Right ever did.

 

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Name of Rose

 

When they decided to turn Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose into a film, they pretty much managed to push all of my movie-going buttons.  Were I given millions of dollars and a producer’s job,  I could not ask for a better star, setting, genre, and plot. 

Start with the location:  I can be a sucker for settings.  Place any movie — no matter how mediocre in other respects — in a cool-looking spaceship, or at a polar research lab, or in a submarine, and I’ll drop the remote long enough to watch, at least for a few minutes.  But until Rose came along in 1986, I would not have put a 13th-century Italian monastery into that category.

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud, filming near Rome and in West Germany, cranks up the atmospherics of Rose with catacombs (real), labyrinths (fake), cemeteries, and … what exactly is in that imposing tower (pictured below left), I wonder?

Into this Dark Ages milieu comes one of my favorite movie stars, Sean Connery.  When abbey denizens begin turning up dead, Connery’s monk is forced into the role of Sherlock Holmes, aided by his young protégé (Christian Slater in his first role).  Ancient books — thousands of them — play a pivotal role in the story.

So now I have everything I could ask for:  Connery, a delicious mystery, a focus on rare books and, above all, one really, really cool setting.        Grade:  A-

 

Rose2     Rose3

Director:  Jean-Jacques Annaud  Cast:  Sean Connery, F. Murray Abraham, Michael Lonsdale, Christian Slater, Valentina Vargas  Release:  1986

 

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Where Wild

 

Where the Wild Things Are has everything:  breathtaking Australian scenery, with foaming surf pounding barren cliffsides; magical sets in which miniature worlds come to life; a quirky musical score that fully complements the story’s surreal atmosphere.  Oh, and did I mention it has actors in giant animal suits?

Where the Wild Things Are is certainly not a bad film — if you happen to be nine years old.  I found it excruciating.  I kept glancing at my watch to see when it would end, and I don’t wear a watch.  I might be one of six people in America who has not read Maurice Sendak’s beloved story, but there was nothing in director Spike Jonze’s crashing bore of a film to send me rushing to the bookstore.

I can’t completely trash the movie, because for all I know, it really does hold appeal for the tots in our midst.  But its arty pretentiousness leads me to think that Jonze was targeting adults, as well.  But whatever metaphors or embrace-your-inner-child motivations the filmmakers might have had are lost in this soggy mess, in which the whining “monsters” are more annoying than the young protagonist.

And did I mention there are actors in giant animal suits?  Sheesh.     Grade:  D

 

Director:  Spike Jonze  Cast:  Paul Dano, Forest Whitaker, Mark Ruffalo, Catherine Keener, Catherine O’Hara, Max Records, Lauren Ambrose, James Gandolfini, Chris Cooper  Release:  2009

 

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Did You Hear

 

I recently saw 1947’s The Egg and I on television, and I kept thinking about that old comedy as I watched Did You Hear About the Morgans?, a film that aspires to Egg-like humor, with Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker playing an estranged couple stuck in Wyoming under the witness protection program.  People complain that “they just don’t make movies the way they used to,” but you can’t say Hollywood doesn’t try, and Morgans is a perfect example.

Grant is certainly a better comic actor than Egg’s Fred MacMurray, although Parker is no match for Claudette Colbert.  But Grant and Parker can both handle romantic comedy, and the fish-out-of-water plot device never gets old — does it?  So why doesn’t this material work better in 2010?  I think it’s just a sign of the times. 

Sixty years ago, MacMurray’s flirtation with a neighboring rich lady was amusing, whereas Grant and Parker actually cheating on each other is not.  And it was okay to poke fun at Ma and Pa Kettle in 1947, but laughing at Wyoming “country folk” who own computers and satellite dishes seems forced and condescending today.

Still, Morgans has its share of genuine chuckles.  The movie might not be able to channel Hollywood’s golden age, but it’s fun to watch it try.    Grade:  C

 

Director:  Marc Lawrence  Cast:  Hugh Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sam Elliott, Mary Steenburgen, Elizabeth Moss, Michael Kelly, Wilford Brimley  Release:  2009

 

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Dead Zone

 

Most Stephen King books make lousy movies (come to think of it, most Stephen King books in recent years aren’t so hot, either).  But there are exceptions.  The Shawshank Redemption comes to mind.  And this film, director David Cronenberg’s chiller from 1983.  Watch it free by going here.

 

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(500) Days

 

I am of two minds about (500) Days of Summer.  I loved its bittersweet, realistic denouement.  The young actors in this romantic comedy are attractive and talented.  But there is only one word to describe my reaction to much of what precedes that poignant ending:  boredom.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are likable as the young-lover protagonists, and the filmmakers deserve kudos for avoiding Judd Apatow plotting; the screenplay, refreshingly, seems not to have been informed by drunken frat boys.  But the screenplay is still the problem — not enough happens in it.  Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel meet, become a couple, break up … and that’s about it.  Their discussions about his architecture and her dreams of losing her teeth are not the stuff of great wit or great drama.

But as I said, the ending is very good.  And I’ll have to admit, I’d probably like the movie a lot more if I were 25 instead of, well, the age I am.      Grade:  B-


Director:  Marc Webb  Cast:  Zooey Deschanel, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Clark Gregg, Minka Kelly, Matthew Gray Gubler, Rachel Boston, Geoffrey Arend, Chloe Moretz  Release:  2009

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Capitalism

 

At the end of Capitalism: A Love Story, filmmaker Michael Moore pauses in his narration and says, “You know, I can’t really do this anymore.  Unless those of you who are watching … want to join me.”  It’s an understandable sentiment.  Moore has been railing against societal ills — both real and perceived — for more than 20 years now, ever since he finally chased down General Motors CEO Roger Smith in Moore’s breakthrough documentary, Roger & Me.

Will Moore’s latest tantrum make you reach for the Alka-Seltzer?  I’m sure it will.  No matter what your political leanings, Capitalism will confirm your worst fears.  If you’re anti-establishment, Moore’s anger will infect you.  If you’re more status quo, Moore himself will infect you.

As usual, his tactics are one-sided.  Are none of the evicted homeowners he champions guilty of having eyes bigger than their wallets?  With all its inherent problems, didn’t capitalism also turn the United States into an economic superpower?  Those questions are brushed aside in this movie. 

But Moore presents so much damning evidence against the other side (“evil” capitalists) that any thinking person has to conclude that something has gone very, very wrong.  And Moore can hardly be accused of liberal partisanship this time around:  His most vicious skewering is reserved for Democratic senators like Chris Dodd and Barack Obama’s economic advisers.     Grade:  B+

 

Director:  Michael Moore  Release:  2009


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 by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

Game

                                

If you’re a politics junkie, you won’t find much new in Game Change.  The 2008 presidential campaign has already been covered exhaustively, from cable TV to the blogosphere.  In fact, unless you simply cannot get enough politics, there isn’t much reason to buy the book.  What it does offer is juicy bits of gossip about the candidates and their spouses.

Heilemann and Halperin will no doubt be accused of liberal bias, but of all the dysfunctional (to put it mildly) political couples they showcase – the McCains, Palins, Edwardses, Clintons, and Obamas – only the Obamas come off as people you would remotely want to run the country, even though one of those couples already has.

 

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Sheila

 

First things first.  There is an obstacle today’s viewer has to overcome to truly appreciate The Last of Sheila, and that obstacle is called 1973.  I’m talking hairstyles here, and I also mean bell bottoms and facial hair.  My advice:  Get your chuckles out of the way in the first ten minutes of this neglected little gem and then concentrate on the movie itself.

I have to digress again, this time for a little celebrity trivia, circa late 1960s.  Actor Anthony Perkins (Psycho) and composer Stephen Sondheim (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) were part of a group of showbiz folk who devised a unique form of self-amusement.  They created scavenger hunts in which celebs including Lee Remick, George Segal, Perkins and Sondheim would scour the streets of Manhattan for clues to a mystery.  The winners’ reward was typically champagne on ice.

Perkins and Sondheim took their fondness for this silly sleuthing and turned it into a screenplay.  The result was Sheila, an absolute delight for puzzle-solvers and movie-star-gazers alike. 

Spurred on by millionaire playboy James Coburn (at his Machiavellian best), Raquel Welch, James Mason, et al, race through the beautifully photographed streets and ports of the French Riviera on a quest to solve Coburn’s mean-spirited scavenger hunt — and to curry his favor.  Of course, the game soon turns deadly.

But enough nonsensical jabbering and meandering in nostalgia.  There — I just gave you a clue to the identity of the killer.           Grade:  A-

Director:  Herbert Ross  Cast:  Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, James Coburn, Joan Hackett, James Mason, Ian McShane, Raquel Welch, Yvonne Romain  Release:  1973

 

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