Monthly Archives: July 2010



There are two scenes in Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys that stick with me.  The first takes place in a solemn college lecture hall, where a pompous author (Rip Torn) is addressing his audience.  As Torn drones on in a god-like manner, there is a sudden bark of derisive laughter from the back of the hall; a student, recognizing arrogant bullshit when he hears it, has not been able to restrain himself.  The second scene is purely visual.  An inexperienced young cop gets out of his parked patrol car and begins to cross the street — but he forgets to set his parking brake, and must comically scamper back to the car as it begins to roll downhill.

Neither of those scenes has diddly-squat to do with the plot of the film, and director Hanson could easily have relegated them to the cutting-room floor.  That Curtis kept them in his movie is telling.  This is a writer’s film.  Screenwriter Steve Kloves, adapting a novel by Michael Chabon, was free to fill Wonder Boys with many memorable, quirky vignettes that do nothing but add delicious flavor to the story.  

Memorable and quirky also describe the performances in this film.  We are so accustomed to seeing Michael Douglas wearing Armani and a sneer, manipulating his way through corporations or Wall Street, that it’s a bit jarring to instead see him in a frayed woman’s nightgown, floundering through life as English Professor Grady Tripp, a one-time literary sensation who now prefers pot-smoking to anything resembling real work.

As a sidebar, it’s interesting to note the career paths of Douglas’s two young co-stars in Wonder Boys, Tobey Maguire and Katie Holmes.  Maguire, hilarious in this film as deadpan, kleptomaniac, student-writer James Leer, went on to solid roles in the Spider-Man films, and more serious fare like Brothers.  Holmes, a T-shirt-and-panties-clad source of sexual temptation to Professor Tripp in Boys, went on to … Tom Cruise.  (I have no comment on which of them made the better career choice.  You decide.)  Adding immeasurably to the “quirk factor” in this movie are supporting actors Robert Downey, Jr., Rip Torn, and Frances McDormand.

But this is Douglas’s picture.  He said he was attracted to the role of disheveled, well-meaning-but-clueless Grady because he wanted a break from playing “the prince of darkness.”  His Professor Tripp is a shiftless man who needs a good push to make changes in his life.  Watching his struggle to do so is both hilarious and rewarding.      Grade:  A-




Director:  Curtis Hanson  Cast:  Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey, Jr., Katie Holmes, Rip Torn, Richard Knox, Richard Thomas  Release:  2000


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If you’re looking for a plot-driven movie where “lots of things happen,” you might want to take a pass on this odd-but-fascinating film from director Lasse Hallstrom.  On the other hand, if you like character-driven drama and are curious about early work from current heartthrobs Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio, by all means watch this one.  Depp plays a put-upon young man who finds himself responsible for a dysfunctional (to put it mildly) family that includes his obese mother — who hasn’t set foot out of their house in seven years — and his mentally retarded younger brother (DiCaprio).  Watch it for free by clicking here.


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There is a movie from 1979 that I recall fondly, about a poor-little-rich-girl (Diane Lane) who runs away with a charismatic French boy.  The two 13-year-olds have but one goal:  to share a kiss under the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, Italy.

The movie is A Little Romance, directed by George Roy Hill.   It’s not a profound film by any means, but it is quite the charmer if you happen to be in the right mood.

In Kisses, two 11-year-olds (Shane Curry and Kelly O’Neill) also run away from home.  They, too, find romance, ride in a boat, and share a kiss – but this ain’t Venice and it sure ain’t the Bridge of Sighs.  Dylan and Kylie are two ragamuffins from broken homes in gritty, suburban Dublin, and they find their puppy love – and trouble – during one hardscrabble night in the big city. 

In terms of plot, not that much transpires in Kisses.  Dylan and Kylie meet people, some of them good and some of them very bad.  They hunt for Dylan’s older brother, and they just … well, play.  They are 11-year-olds, after all.  Their journey begins like an Irish version of Huckleberry Finn, with the kids hitching a ride on a river dredger captained by a friendly fellow.  Their adventure ends with a frantic escape from the clutches of two child molesters.  

So what do these kids learn from their night on the town?  As Kylie tells Dylan, “You were right, though.  There is no devil.  Just people.”  Which may or may not be the same thing.  Unpleasant things happen to our young heroes in Kisses, but this is far from an unpleasant movie.  In its humble, gritty way, Kisses is every bit as beguiling as A Little Romance.         Grade:  B+




Director:  Lance Daly  Cast:  Shane Curry, Kelly O’Neill, Paul Roe, Neili Conroy, David Bendito, Elizabeth Fuh, Cathy Malone  Release:  2010

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Nurse     Blonsky


We hear a lot about America’s obesity epidemic.  One-third of America’s children are overweight or obese.  McDonald’s is under fire again, and soda machines are being removed from schools.

I am hearing a lot about something else — Nikki Blonsky, star of the new ABC Family series, Huge.  Nikki Blonsky, I hear, is a wonderful role model for young people because she embraces her “plus-size” frame.  Nikki Blonsky is perfectly content with Nikki Blonsky, so everyone else should shut up and deal with it.

This is all very confusing.  Lard — love it or leave it?






I thought I might make an eyebrow-raising point (as opposed to, say, a hair-raising comment).  I thought I might complain about the disturbing shift in Hollywood from adult-oriented movies to kiddie fare.  Fifty years ago, I thought, we had more mature movies.  Today, we are inundated with Shrek, Toy Story, Marmaduke, Despicable Me, and superheroes.  Surely, that kind of thing was unheard of in the 1960s.  I looked it up.

Here are the top ten grossing films from the 1960s, in descending order:  The Sound of Music, 101 Dalmations, The Jungle Book, Doctor Zhivago, The Graduate, Mary Poppins, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, My Fair Lady, Thunderball, Funny Girl.

Rats.  So much for my argument.  Two cartoons, one live-action kiddie flick, and three family-friendly musicals.  Just for kicks, I looked at the 1950s.  The top of the list was dominated by Disney cartoons.  I give up.  Kiddies rule, and kiddies have always ruled.


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If Saturday Night Live doesn’t have a hilarious skit tonight about the Mel Gibson-Oksana Grigorieva freak show, I will give up on Saturday Night Live.


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My One and Only is one of those small movies that flies under the radar for a number of reasons.  It has an unfortunate title (too generic), no car chases, and no special effects.  There are no vampires.   But it has two things that 95 percent of modern movies lack:  a script brimming with humanity and wit, and a cast of actors obviously in love with the film.  Reportedly, My One and Only is loosely based on the early life of actor George Hamilton.  If Hamilton’s teen years were anything like events in this film, they must have been colorful, indeed.  

As the movie opens, young George’s mother, Ann (Renee Zellweger), finally has enough of her philandering, bandleader husband (Kevin Bacon), and so packs up George and his half-brother Robbie (Mark Rendall), assuring them that their new life on the road will be “an adventure.”  Ann rashly purchases an expensive, 1953 Cadillac Eldorado.  This acquisition is just the first of many unwise decisions Ann will make as she dallies, disastrously, with a series of potential new husbands.

Ann might be delusional, but she is also tenacious.  Just as Blanche DuBois “always depended on the kindness of strangers,” kindred spirit Ann has her own aphorism:  “Everything works out for the best.”   Well, maybe not always.  I have never been a big fan of Zellweger’s acting.  I did like her in Jerry Maguire, but that was a long time ago.  But Zellweger doesn’t simply carry My One and Only, she turns in an unforgettable performance.  I am now an unapologetic fan.

My One and Only is a road-trip movie that shines because there are so many genuine, small moments that aren’t essential to the plot,  but that nonetheless stand out.  Every character this gypsy-like family encounters on the road is flawed, but also likable.  When Ann, George and Robbie depart Pittsburgh to continue their journey, thereby cutting short a tenuous romance between George and a freckle-faced sweetheart named Paula, the camera lingers on the girl, who is sad to see them go. So was I.                  Grade:  B+




Director:  Richard Loncraine  Cast:  Renee Zellweger, Logan Lerman, Mark Rendall, Kevin Bacon, Troy Garity, David Koechner, J.C. MacKenzie, Eric McCormack, Chris Noth, Molly C. Quinn  Release:  2009


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I’m going to penetrate deep into your subconscious – not on just one level, but on three.  On the first level, I will appeal to your hunger for spiritual nourishment.  On level two, I will attempt to feed your intellect.  And on the third level … ah, who the hell am I trying to kid?  I am Hollywood, and I just want your hard-earned leisure-time money, so fork it over.

Inception is a total mess of a movie.  It will make a load of money at the box office, because Hollywood knows how hungry audiences are for something that is – at least on the surface – intellectually a notch above junk like, say, Kick-Ass, or Avatar.  And in their promotional pieces, filmmakers can deceive Joe and Mary Filmgoer into the false belief that Inception has a heart.  It doesn’t.

Director Christopher Nolan is known for filmic puzzles (Memento), and in this regard Inception does not disappoint.  But what Nolan fails to understand, or doesn’t care enough about, is that in order to devote two and a half hours attempting to decipher an intricate puzzle, it helps if the audience can identify with the movie’s protagonists.  Leonardo DiCaprio is an appealing actor, but even he can’t rescue a script that devotes oodles of brainpower to the mysteries of the human mind but not one scrap of concern for the emotional end of things – despite a half-hearted attempt at “family values” involving Leo’s dead wife and their young children.

Inception is so, well, unimaginative that two-thirds into the thing, Nolan resorts to endlessly dull, mind-numbing car chases and shoot ‘em ups – the same routines we’ve seen a thousand times before.  The special effects are kind of fun but, well … yawn.

As this pretentious hokum dragged on and on and on, I kept glancing at my neighbor in the movie theater, hoping he would lean over and whisper in my ear:  “Don’t worry; it’s just a bad dream.  It will all be over soon.”              Grade:  C-




Director:  Christopher Nolan  Cast:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine  Release:  2010



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There isn’t much worse than a Hollywood movie that feels compelled to spell out every plot point.  “You are 12 years old,” these films seem to say to us, “and so this is why Bobby loves Susie, and this is why Susie was in that car chase, and this is why Bobby shot the bad man in the head.”

On the other end of the spectrum, however, is the “enigmatic” drama – films in which too little is explained.  Tom Ford’s A Single Man falls into this category, with its chronicle of the last day in the life of a despondent, homosexual English professor who has recently lost his longtime partner.  I haven’t read the Christopher Isherwood novel upon which Man is based, but I imagine the book relies heavily on the inner-voice technique – narration or exposition that is commonplace in print but which can handicap a film version of the story.

Much has been made of Colin Firth’s portrayal of George, the lonely professor who spends one last day putting his affairs, literal and figurative, in order while preparing for suicide.  Firth’s expressive face conveys intelligence, no question, but it also conveys little else.  George is maddeningly detached from everyone around him, from neighborhood families to casual acquaintances.  He can cut loose only with best pal Charley (Julianne Moore) – but even then only with much coaxing on her part.  Right up until the end, George remains at arm’s length from other people, including the audience.

George seems to be watching himself in his own movie.  When he learns from a child that his neighbor would like to toss him to the lions – just deserts for being “light in the loafers” – his reaction seems to be mild disappointment.  When he aims a pistol into his own mouth, he seems to be wrestling with the proper way to blow-dry his hair.  The end, when it finally comes, is not poignant but almost unintentionally funny – all that preparation, and look what happens.   As the cliché goes, life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.       Grade:  B-




Director:  Tom Ford  Cast:  Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Nicholas Hoult, Matthew Goode, Jon Kortajarena, Paulette Lamori  Release:  2009


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Chloe is elevated a notch above the type of late-night erotic mysteries found on Cinemax by the strength of one neat plot twist and some top-tier actors.  Those actors would be old pros Julianne Moore and Liam Neeson, who garner sympathy for two largely unsympathetic characters.  Moore and Neeson play an upper-crust Toronto couple – he’s a charismatic college professor; she’s his smart-but-insecure gynecologist wife – living in the lap of luxury but succumbing to an oh-so-typical midlife crisis.

Enter Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), a glamorous young prostitute whom Catherine (Moore) spots from her office window and then decides to include in a fateful decision.  Catherine hires the girl to use as bait in a test of her husband’s fidelity, or lack thereof.  This decision – certainly atypical of most women, but handled deftly by screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary) – sends the story in unexpected directions.

Chloe’s problem is Seyfried.  The actress certainly looks the part, but she lacks the acting chops of, say, Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, or Anne Baxter in All About Eve.  Unfortunately, Seyfried proves that less is more:  The less she wears, the more watchable the movie; the less she speaks, the more believable the story.  She lacks the gravitas needed for the titular role – although her titular rolls certainly defy gravity.  Sorry.

Chloe has its attractions.  The twist, as I’ve said, is a neat one.  Moore turns in yet another intriguing performance.  And the ballyhooed sex scene between Moore and Seyfried is suitably steamy – if you like that kind of thing on Cinemax.      Grade:  B




Director:  Atom Egoyan  Cast:  Julianne Moore, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried, Max Thieriot, R.H. Thomson, Nina Dobrev  Release:  2010


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Blake Edwards is a filmmaker best known for two things:  1) He is married to Julie Andrews, and 2) he directed the first Pink Panther movies.  I can’t speak for his married life, but to me it’s a shame that his legacy seems to be those Peter Sellers comedies.  Edwards also directed great drama (Days of Wine and Roses, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and, I think, one of the best suspense films of the 1960s, Experiment in TerrorGo here to read my review of this 1962 chiller starring Glenn Ford and Lee Remick.  Otherwise, jump right in and watch it for free by clicking here.


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Mathematics is at the heart of the mystery in The Oxford Murders — but don’t let that scare you away from the film.  There is something much more chilling than the Pythagorean theorem in this movie:  Elijah Wood.  Someone made the ill-fated decision to cast Wood as a student mathematician and (gulp!) romantic hero in this whodunit, and that miscalculation might be the film’s greatest mystery.

We are asked to believe that Wood’s animal magnetism (iguanas have mates, correct?) is so irresistible that not one, but two fetching young women fall into his arms within minutes of meeting his character, Martin the math major.  Director Alex de la Iglesia tried spinning the casting of his leading man this way:  “I’m delighted to work with Elijah, who undoubtedly has the most powerful eyes in the industry and who is perfect for the part.”  Well.  The young actor’s eyes certainly are powerful, in a deathray sort of way.  In Oxford, Wood is also asked to remove his shirt for a sex scene with Spanish beauty Leonor Watling.  The scene depicts a bug-eyed Wood slurping spaghetti off Ms. Watling’s chest.  It also exposes audiences to Wood’s scrawny, pale torso.  The kid is in obvious need of the spaghetti. 

To be fair, the horribly miscast lead actor is not the film’s only flaw.  I haven’t read the novel upon which the movie is based, but I’m guessing that plot developments that seem sketchy, implausible, and rushed on screen might be thoughtful and well-developed on the printed page.  The movie races through key plot points when it really should pause for all of us slow students in class.

John Hurt is excellent as famed mathematician-philosopher Arthur Seldom.  It’s the overmatched Wood’s misfortune to be paired with a consummate professional like Hurt in scene after scene – as if the romantic bits with Watling weren’t humiliation enough for one actor.

The movie did leave me with greater appreciation for people who are gifted with numbers.  Unfortunately, it also left me with a newly acquired aversion to spaghetti.       Grade:  C


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Director:  Alex de la Iglesia  Cast:  Elijah Wood, John Hurt, Leonor Watling, Julie Cox, Jim Carter, Alex Cox, Burn Gorman, Anna Massey  Release:  2008


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