Monthly Archives: June 2010

by Ian McEwan



At one point in Atonement, the main character, an aspiring novelist, receives a rejection notice from a publishing house.  The publisher explains, “… you dedicate scores of pages to the quality of light and shade, and to random impressions … Simply put, you need the backbone of a story.”  Reading this passage, I had to wonder if Ian McEwan, the author of this wonderful novel, was perhaps quoting from one his own, early-career rejection slips.  I wonder about that because if I have one quibble with Atonement, it would be about the very quality that so many readers adore in their literature:  descriptive scenes in which we learn about the trees on a street, the smells emanating from a nearby restaurant, etcetera.

A lot of people love that sort of thing.  It is the essence of literature, to them.  I happen to be more of a “story” and “backbone” fan.  I think descriptive prose can be overdone, and is suited more to poetry.  But if I’m giving the impression that Atonement lacks narrative drive and power, forgive me, because McEwan’s novel is a strong, strong book — full of “random impressions,” but also a haunting tale of a child’s mistake that ruins adult lives.


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Soccer2     Soccer1


Hey fans, it’s that time again — World Cup soccer!

I live in Minnesota.  Other than Canada, there is no place in North America more rabid about hockey than my state.  People have been trying to turn me into a hockey fan my entire life.  It hasn’t worked.  Americans won’t take to soccer, either.

Soccer and hockey both suck on TV, and they aren’t a whole lot more fun to watch in person.  I’m sure they are fun to play, but as big-time spectator sports?  Nah.






What’s wrong with this picture?

Yes, I understand that breast cancer is a serious matter, and no, I do not want breast-cancer research abolished.  But there is a story in Parade today about the amount of taxpayer money that goes into breast-cancer research, compared to funding for other cancers, cancers which happen to kill many more people.

Here are some numbers to ponder, from 2009:  Number One Killer — lung and bronchus cancer ($247 million for research); Number Two Killer — colon and rectum cancer ($264 million); Number Three Killer — breast cancer ($600 million); Number Four Killer — pancreas cancer ($90 million).  (All figures are for National Cancer Institute funding.)






I really don’t care if 16-year-old Abby Sunderland becomes the youngest person to sail the world solo, or whatever it is she’s trying to do.  Bully for her.  And if the corpse of Ted Williams attempts to be the first dead body to climb Mount Everest, good for the Splendid Splinter. 

But when boneheaded sailors and climbers get into trouble and require thousands of taxpayer dollars to be saved, well, let them pay for their own damn rescue costs.  Australians are on the hook for little Miss Abby, who now informs the world that she can’t wait to try the whole adventure, all over again.  Why shouldn’t she, if she can get someone else to foot the bill for her next rescue?  From her blog:  “The loss of Wild Eyes [her yacht] will be deeply felt by Abby, who poured so much blood, sweat and tears into her.”

Boo hoo hoo.  Next time, let’s see her pour some money into her own rescue fees.


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Want to know what makes comedienne Joan Rivers tick?  Curious if Rivers believes in God or in an afterlife?  What drives this woman, now 77, wealthy and secure, to still play rundown nightclubs in the Bronx and backwater venues in Wisconsin?

Surprise!  You won’t find the answers to any of those questions in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the new documentary covering one year in the workaholic comic’s life.  You also won’t laugh very much during the film.  There are occasional clips of Rivers performing on stage — and then you’ll probably laugh (I did) — but this movie is not a concert film, and it’s not a very detailed biography, either.

What Joan Rivers is, however, is a riveting look at Rivers right now.   Conventional wisdom declares that people either love her or hate her, but to this reviewer, sitting here entrenched in “the end of the world” (Rivers’s conception of the Midwest, in her view anywhere outside of New York and L.A.), Rivers is not so black or white.  She is more like an odd lab specimen.  She defies every grandmother stereotype, whether she’s competing with daughter Melissa on The Celebrity Apprentice, joking about anal sex on stage, or yelling back at the heckling father of a deaf child, calling the man a bastard.

There are surprises about this show-business legend.  Rivers first and foremost considers herself an actress – not a comedienne, which she considers just another acting role.  She lives in an apartment she deems worthy of Marie Antoinette, yet she also delivers meals to the disabled on Thanksgiving.  She allows the documentarians to film unflattering footage of her surgically enhanced face, decries deceased husband Edgar as a poor businessman, and doesn’t hesitate to name names in a roll call of comics she does or does not favor (Maher, Stewart, and Rickles get passing grades;  Ben Stiller, not so much).

Above all, Rivers is ceaselessly entertaining.  The movie is amusing because with Rivers there is no alternative.  The filmmakers could have placed a camera on a tripod in her living room and left town for a week, and I’m sure whenever Rivers was in view, the result would be hilarious.

We are told that Rivers, like all comedians, is a “damaged” soul in need of constant audience approval.  We read Entertainment Weekly, so we already knew that.  But what caused Rivers’s psychic trauma?  I still don’t have a clue, and that’s my only complaint about this fascinating documentary.          Grade:  B+




Directors:  Ricki Stern, Anne Sundberg  Featuring:  Joan Rivers, Melissa Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Emily Kosloski, Mark Anderson Phillips, Larry A. Thompson, Don Rickles  Release:  2010


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Think of director Bill Condon’s 1998 film about James Whale, director of the first two Frankenstein films, and you might think of “that movie about an old gay guy in Hollywood.”  That’s true, but the film is much more than that.

I recently rewatched Gods and Monsters and was surprised to see how much humor Whale inserted into his horror which, in addition to the Frankenstein pictures, included The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man.  I also believe Monsters’s portrayal of Whale is less about homosexuality, more about aging and being an outsider — no matter your sexuality.

Early on in the film, the elderly Whale suffers a minor stroke and experiences a series of flashbacks, including everything from childhood poverty to his eventual professional success.  He tries to convince himself that at last he has his freedom, but laments that “I’ve spent much of my life outrunning the past, and now it floods all over me.”

In his old age Whale is alone, and just like his famous monster, he is in dire need of “a friend.”  Actually, as played by Ian McKellen, Whale wants a bit more than simple friendship.  He is a dirty old man, lusting after young hunks like the one portrayed by Brendan Fraser.  Whale is a vain and proud man.  He is also filled with self-loathing.

Gods and Monsters is an actor’s movie, a Sunset Boulevard for a new generation. McKellen was deservedly Oscar-nominated, but his supporting cast is also first-rate. Fraser brings a surprising sense of curiosity to his blue-collar hunk,  and Lynn Redgrave conveys sensitivity beneath the surface of Whale’s gruff housekeeper.          Grade:  A-




Director:  Bill Condon  Cast:  Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave, Lolita Davidovich, David Dukes  Release:  1998


Gods3      Gods4

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Alice in Wonderland is a smorgasbord of rainbow-hued vistas, mist-enshrouded glens, and hallucinogenic castles, most of it photographed in vivid, primary colors.  I haven’t had posters on my bedroom wall since college, but after feasting on director Tim Burton’s visual delights, I’m considering big ones of Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen and Anne Hathaway as the White Queen.  (I’ll tack them up right where Farrah Fawcett used to hang out.)  Burton’s images will be my lasting impression of Alice in Wonderland, I’m certain.  Unfortunately, I’m also pretty sure that everything else about his movie will fade from memory in no time at all.

I’ll forget that the surrealistic special effects were so eye-popping that I spent most of the film staring at them – completely oblivious to any plot developments.  I’ll remember Johnny Depp’s makeup as the Mad Hatter – and not recall that he was horribly miscast in the role.  Depp is a fine thespian, but the Mad Hatter requires a quirky, physically unusual actor, not someone who looks like a matinee idol in clown makeup.

Everything takes second place to the look of this movie.  Alice author Lewis Carroll’s written wit is not here.  There is nothing remotely humorous about what Tweedledum and Tweedledee have to say in the film, but boy, they sure look cool. Fake, but cool.

Alice in Wonderland is a prime example of what happens when story and character play second fiddle to computer and motion-capture effects.  I did not see Burton’s film in 3-D, and I can imagine it is even more visually impressive in that format.  But it’s a sad day when you go to watch a story by the great nonsense-writer Carroll, and watch it is all you do, no listening required.            Grade:  C-



Director:  Tim Burton  Cast:  Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas  Release:  2010


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.          Rome1


It’s always risky for someone like me to go negative on a movie like When in Rome.  By “someone like me,” I mean a male of the species, and by When in Rome, I mean a romantic comedy tailored for women.  Particularly young women.

But I have to defend myself.  When in Rome has some obvious cinematic ancestors, and one of those would be a 1953 movie called Roman Holiday.  I happen to like Roman Holiday.  I consider the Audrey Hepburn-Gregory Peck film one of the best romantic comedies ever made.  In fact, I consider Roman Holiday one of the best movies ever made, period.  So please spare me any “he just doesn’t get it” attacks.

What I do understand is bad writing, and When in Rome is drowning in it.  The film contains a fair amount of slapstick, but there is a difference between clever-funny and stupid-funny.  I take that back, because the jokes in Rome are 100 percent stupid — no funny whatsoever.  But I take that back, as well, because there is an amusing bit of dialogue in a wedding scene, when the minister mistakenly says, “Do you take this woman to be your awful wedded wife?”  Oh, wait.  That line is stolen verbatim from Four Weddings and a Funeral.

There are a few good things about the movie.  Kristen Bell, as art curator Beth, is cute, likable, and quite adept at physical comedy.  Her romantic costar, Josh Duhamel, is suitably handsome, affable, bland … and looks as though he can’t believe he’s been cast as an ex-jock in a screwball comedy.  Old pros Danny DeVito, Anjelica Huston, Don Johnson and Peggy Lipton do not embarrass themselves, although DeVito comes close.

When in Rome has one outstanding attribute.  Over the past decade or so, Hollywood movies have gotten longer and longer, trying audience patience with stories that take much too long to tell.  When in Rome, blessedly, clocks in at a paltry 91 minutes.  That proves that there is a God.  And I’ll bet God prefers Roman Holiday to this mess.        Grade:  C-



Director:  Mark Steven Johnson  Cast:  Kristen Bell, Josh Duhamel, Anjelica Huston, Danny DeVito, Will Arnett, Jon Heder, Dax Shepard, Alexis Dziena  Release:  2010


Rome3     Watch Trailers & Clips  (click here)


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In the mood for an old movie “like they don’t make anymore”?  Here’s a little gem from 1941 that critic Leonard Maltin calls “Hollywood moviemaking at its best, with first-rate cast and performances.”  Watch Robert Montgomery and Evelyn Keyes in this charming fantasy-comedy by clicking here.


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When I walked into a movie theater three years ago to watch Zodiac, I felt the film’s box-office success was a foregone conclusion.  It had the right director, David Fincher, who had helmed the nightmarish, tension-filled Se7en and an ingenious little mindfuck called The Game.  It was a serial-killer movie, and witness the popularity of The Silence of the Lambs.  It starred Robert Downey, Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal.  So I watched the movie, enjoyed it … and it was a box-office flop.  Why?

It failed at North American theaters for one of two reasons:  bad marketing, or bad execution.  I think its downfall was due to a little of both.

First, the good things about Zodiac, and there are many.  Once upon a time, before he sold out to comic-book junk like Iron Man and Tropic Thunder, Downey was an inventive actor who appeared in interesting movies.  His chain-smoking, sarcastic journalist in Zodiac is a hyperactive joy.  Downey can sit on a barstool and do nothing but flick ashes onto the floor, and I’m glued to his every move.  Second, Fincher directs the movie like a no-nonsense, serial-killing cousin of All the President’s Men.  In the hands of the right filmmaker, such as Fincher, bureaucratic paper-pushing can actually be gripping stuff, and much of the time in this movie it is.

But Fincher’s adherence to “getting it right” can also be a dramatic drag (for the true-crime-impaired, Zodiac is based on an actual case that stymied San Francisco police in the 1970s – and to this day).  At two hours and 38 minutes, the film is simply too long.  If you’re going to make an audience sit through that much conversation and paperwork, you’d better deliver a decent payoff.  Fincher, religiously sticking to the facts of the case, cannot do that.

Or maybe the movie’s disappointing box-office was a result of poor marketing.  This is how Fincher explained it:  “My philosophy is that if you market a movie to 16-year-old boys and don’t deliver Saw or Se7en, they’re going to be the most vociferous ones coming out of the screening, saying, ‘This movie sucks.’  And you’re saying goodbye to the audience who would get it, because they’re going to look at the ads and say, ‘I don’t want to see some slasher movie.’”        Grade:  B+


Director:  David Fincher  Cast:  Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey, Jr., Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Chloe Sevigny  Release:  2007


Zodiac2  Zodiac3

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I just got back from the store.  While I was gone, I left on the television set.  And my computer.  And a number of lights.  I do this kind of thing a lot.  I am an American, dammit.

Of course BP is to blame for the oil spill.  And yes, government regulators failed to regulate.  But trashing the British seems a bit hypocritical unless we, the American consumers, get our act together and stop demanding so much oil on the cheap.

Worst of all are bonehead celebrities like Ashton Kutcher (below).  Though well-meaning, stars like Kutcher jet set around the world and live in oil-guzzling mansions.  And he’s upset about all of the oil drilling?






Sandra      KimC


I sense a Hollywood trend.  Last year, Sandra Bullock won a Razzie Award for Worst Actress in All About Steve.  She also won an Oscar for The Blind Side.  This year, Kim Cattrall is getting hammered for starring in what some critics call the worst film of the year, Sex and the City 2.  But she also stars in what I think might be the best film of the year:  The Ghost Writer.   Will Cattrall follow in Bullock’s footsteps?

Regardless of Cattrall’s fate this year, who among us will ever forget her memorable performance in Porky’s (below)?




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The Killer Inside Me is certainly thought-provoking.  How do you feel about violence against women on film? What are your thoughts about violence on film, in general?  What is the best possible career move for actresses Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba (I’ll get to this one later)?

I haven’t read any of pulp-crime writer Jim Thompson’s books, on one of which Killer is based, but Hollywood has a long history with his works (The Grifters, The Getaway).  The late, great Stanley Kubrick was a Thompson fan.  I think that prior to watching director Michael Winterbottom’s new movie, some familiarity with Thompson’s world would probably be of help.  As Killer unfolded, I kept asking myself:  “Who are these people?  What makes them tick?”  I’m guessing that the answers to these questions come more easily to Thompson fans.

In the case of “hero” Lou Ford (Casey Affleck), we probably don’t want to know who he is – not who he really is.  Ford is a small-town cop, a young man seemingly as amiable as his high-pitched, West Texas drawl.  Everyone in town knows soft-spoken Lou; they’ve known him since his childhood.  Or do they really?  Do they, for example, know that in his youth Lou sexually assaulted a little girl, then let his stepbrother take the fall for it?  Do the townspeople know that Lou harbors near-constant urges to act violently?

Killer is nothing if not violent – primarily violence against women.  There is one scene in particular, in which Alba’s character, a prostitute, is graphically pummeled in the face, which will probably mesmerize some in the audience, and repel others.  We all know that violence is part of human nature, but do we need it spelled out in such detail?  Your answer to that question will probably determine how you react to this film, overall.

The performances are praiseworthy.  Affleck is a study in sociopathic coolness as he vacillates between inbred Southern manners and the “sickness” within.  His amoral cop listens to classical music, surrounded by shelves of books in his father’s study, while contemplating his next atrocity.  Hudson and Alba are apparently on board to transition their careers from eye-candy roles to “serious actress.”  In this movie, that requires both of them to bare all (well, at least their derrieres … well, at least Alba’s derriere; Hudson might have used a double) in rough-sex scenes. 

My guess is that any potential controversy over the violence in this film will come to nothing.  Killer isn’t mainstream enough to garner much attention outside of, possibly, the art-house circuit.        Grade:  B-




Director:  Michael Winterbottom  Cast:  Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson, Jessica Alba, Ned Beatty, Elias Koteas, Tom Bower, Simon Baker, Bill Pullman, Rosa Pasquarella  Release:  2010



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