Monthly Archives: December 2010



As I was watching How to Train Your Dragon, I kept thinking of another film:  Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary, Grizzly Man.  In Herzog’s movie, a naïve young fool named Timothy Treadwell believes he can best-friend-forever wild bears, thereby ignoring thousands of years of human history.  Things do not end well for the optimistic Mr. Treadwell.

In How to Train Your Dragon, one of the lessons seems to be:  Animals are our pals, kindred spirits to all of mankind.  “Everything we know about you guys is wrong,” says the young hero, Hiccup, to a dragon.  That’s probably what the Grizzly Man thought, right before he became breakfast.  Things, of course, do not end so badly for the heroes in Dragon – this is a children’s movie, after all – but the story has little, sorry, bearing on reality.

I suppose if you are eight years old, this animated confection is the cat’s meow.  If, however, you are older, it’s a barely tolerable waste of 98 minutes.  The story is unoriginal, the gags are aimed at pre-teens, and much of what transpires is preposterous.  Young Hiccup, drawn as a teenager, is voiced by an actor who is nearly 30 and whose voice sounds exactly that, which is both bizarre and distracting.

As for the celebrated 3-D special effects … I didn’t see it in 3-D, but according to Roger Ebert, I didn’t miss much.  Says Ebert: “The 3-D adds nothing but the opportunity to pay more to see a distracting and unnecessary additional dimension.”  I’ll take his word for it.

How to Train Your Dragon is well-meaning and well-drawn and well … very nice for eight-year-olds.  It is a Gumby movie with more expensive production values.      Grade:  B-


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Directors:  Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders  Voice Talent:  Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera  Release:  2010



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Bob Dole, that cantankerous old coot from Kansas, made news during the 1996 presidential campaign when he attacked a relatively obscure British movie called Trainspotting.  According to Wikipedia, “U.S. Senator Bob Dole accused it of moral depravity and glorifying drug use … although he later admitted that he had not actually seen the film.”

Dole lost the 1996 election, but he made a good point.  I give Trainspotting an above-average grade because the movie is inventive, rollicking entertainment – but it does glorify heroin users.  My complaint (and Dole’s) is nothing new; critics carped in the 1960s about Butch and Sundance, and Bonnie and Clyde, for their alleged bad influence on youthful moviegoers. 

But whining about “sinful” cinema is a lost cause.  The truth of the matter is that if you put a clump of putrid dog vomit on the big screen, someone, somewhere, will spearhead a cult following for said dog vomit.  There is an audience for just about anything.  (Incidentally, I am not comparing Trainspotting to dog vomit.)

Danny Boyle’s gritty depiction of Scottish drug addicts does have tragic moments, but they are glossed over as Boyle moves on to other concerns:  a frantic pace, clever dialogue and – above all – a desire to amuse his audience.  As druggie Renton says in the film, “People think it’s [drug abuse] all about misery and desperation and death … but what they forget is the pleasure of it.  Otherwise we wouldn’t do it.”

Trainspotting is all about pleasing oneself.  For every dead baby scene, there is a hilarious bit about “the worst toilet in Scotland,” or the perils of pummeling a dog’s posterior with a pellet gun.  Bob Dole was correct:  the movie does glorify drug use. But it is also glorious fun.      Grade:  B




Director:  Danny Boyle  Cast:  Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd, Robert Carlyle, Kelly Macdonald, Peter Mullan, James Cosmo, Pauline Lynch, Shirley Henderson  Release:  1996


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You know Hollywood has a good idea when it can’t stop plundering itself.  Such is the case with D.O.A., a 1950 thriller that’s been remade at least twice, and heavily influenced other movies like 2006’s Crank.  Edmond O’Brien stars as a frantic fellow racing against the clock to find out who gave him a slow-acting poison – and why.  Watch this gripping film noir for free by clicking here.


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Jerks of the Week




The Swedish “rape” victims:  I have no idea if WikiLeaks rabble-rouser Julian Assange is a “man of the people” or just a dangerous publicity hound, but from what I’ve read, the rape charges against him appear to be a joke.  If these two women had consensual sex with Assange and then got their feelings hurt, well, welcome to Jerks of the Week.





Josh Duhamel:  You make this list for acting like a spoiled brat on an airplane.  Turn off your damn BlackBerrry and stop inconveniencing other passengers.  Your movies suck, too.





Drew Pinsky:  This pompous narcissist needs some doctoring, himself.  I don’t know how he manages to constantly be on TV, because it must be difficult for him to tear himself away from dressing-room mirrors.





Obama:  I voted for you, and you are still light-years superior to any Republican, but you need to stop reneging on campaign promises and blaming others for your failures.





Bristol Palin:  You are only, what, 19 years old?  And yet you already have a double-chin and thunder thighs.  Yes, Bristol, you are fat.





Elizabeth Edwards:  I know, I know, it’s not polite to speak ill of the recently deceased.  But it is also a load of horse manure to bestow sainthood on a woman who doesn’t qualify for the honor.  Yes, her husband was a vain and feckless loser, and yes, it’s too bad she got cancer.  But geez, people, read the book Game Change, in which Elizabeth comes off as a shrill, bullying harridan — and quite possibly mentally unstable.  I read the book and thought, “No wonder John ran away from her.”





Wesley Snipes:   You just had to play the race card on your Larry King appearance, didn’t you?  Poor fella.  Now it’s off to a country-club jail for this tax cheat.





The Kardashians:   Kim is reportedly the highest-paid reality TV star ($6 million per year), so naturally she and her awful sisters tried to bilk their fans for even more via a credit-card scam.





Surgeon General Regina Benjamin:  Said she, “That one puff on that cigarette could be the one that causes your heart attack.”  Right, Regina.  From the looks of you, I’d say that just one more bite out of a Twinkie could lead to a heart attack for you.





Former Playboy Playmate Donna D’Errico:   Donna was upset that she got a full-body scan at the airport.  Hard to sympathize with you, because a Google search of your name calls up 17 million nude pictures.





Bad Mob:  The morons of the Westboro Baptist Church, who protest at the funerals of dead soldiers.





Good Mob:   The student protestors in England who made life uncomfortable for Prince Charles and Camilla.  Hey, Charles, your country is on the verge of bankruptcy — take the bus for once in your privileged life.


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As a television slave, I can’t think of anything more delightful than discovering some buried gem amid all of the mindless rubble on screen.  Doc Martin, a British comedy-drama on the air since 2004, is one of those surprising finds.  Not only is the show intelligently written, but there are four seasons of past episodes available (mostly) free of charge on the Internet.

The series depicts the travails of Dr. Martin Ellingham (Martin Clunes), an uptight – to put it mildly – surgeon-turned-general practitioner who abandons London for the small village of Portwenn, an absolutely stunning hamlet on the Atlantic coast of Cornwall.  (The show is filmed on location in Port Isaac in southwest England.  Who knew that Britain has resorts rivaling Montego Bay for pure physical beauty?)




To say that Portwenn’s inhabitants are unsophisticated is akin to describing recent British politics as serene and understated.  Doc Martin is yet another fish-out-of-water formula show, to be sure, but this is no Green Acres.  The plots are consistently funny and – generally when you least expect it – poignant.

Clunes’s doctor, a spinoff character from the 2000 film Saving Grace, is a source of endless amusement.  Ellingham is the stereotypical, stiff-upper-lip Brit we’ve seen in so many English exports, but Clunes gives the character a vulnerability that is at once hilarious and sympathetic.  He is supported by a top-notch ensemble cast.  Caroline Catz, as Ellingham’s on-again, off-again schoolteacher love interest, is the kind of girl you want your mother to meet – but not until after you’ve enjoyed a healthy roll in the hay with her.  (Catz, that is; not your mother.)  The humor in Doc Martin all flows from character – and what great characters!


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Doc Martin has been an award-winning ratings smash in England for six years.  Production begins on season five in 2011, but in the meantime, it’s great news for Americans that past episodes of the show are available on PBS and the Internet.  Most episodes can be found on Hulu, Fancast, The Internet Movie Database, and Netflix.


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Creator:  Dominic Minghella  Cast:  Martin Clunes, Caroline Catz, Ian McNeice, Stephanie Cole, Joe Absolom, Katherine Parkinson, Selina Cadell, John Marquez  Airing:  2004-present



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by H.G. Wells



Of the handful of H.G. Wells classics I’ve read, The Island of Dr. Moreau is probably the most thought-provoking – and the least entertaining.  It’s morbidly interesting because, unlike the space aliens in The War of the Worlds or time travel in The Time Machine, the themes Wells explores are grounded in reality:  evolution, nature versus nurture, religion, and man’s relationship to his fellow animals.  But Island is nowhere near as much fun as the author’s other science-fiction stories because its protagonist, Prendick, does not hunt, chase, or flee from Dr. Moreau’s monstrous creations (a hybrid of humans and beasts); mostly he just observes them.  And these observations are not so much thrilling as unpleasant, a depressing reminder of all that is wrong with human nature, and science run amok.


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For a bunch of supposedly smart people, scientists sure are rotten at public relations.  This week, NASA decided to interrupt all regular news programming for a “major announcement.”  This announcement, we were told, would be about the search for alien life.  I got excited.  Did they find little green men?  Had someone (or something) in the universe finally responded to those old episodes of The Honeymooners we have been beaming into space?

Nope.  Instead, a condescending, annoying scientist named Felisa Wolfe-Simon came on camera and proceeded to talk down to the world about her big find — some microscopic potato-things in California with arsenic in their DNA.

Yawn.  I’m sorry, but I’d rather watch The Honeymooners.






One day about 15 years ago I was sitting in an office in downtown Ft. Worth, Texas, when someone looked out the window and noticed a film crew working on the street below.  It was lunchtime, so I went outside and had a look-see.  They were shooting an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger, a CBS show starring Chuck Norris.

It was chilly that day — for Texas.  It might have been in the 40s.  I glanced to my right and noticed a man standing on the sidewalk.  He was visibly trembling, grasping his shoulders and red of face.  My first thought was, “What a wimp.”  My second thought was, “Hey, that’s Chuck Norris.”

I thought of that on Thursday when I read that Texas Gov. Rick Perry had named Norris an honorary member of the Texas Rangers.  Guess they’ll accept anybody.




I was accused this week of being a “boobies man.”  I resent that.  I am a “butt man.”  Here is evidence:




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Somebody goofed – big time – when developing All Good Things, the new thriller starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst.  For raw material, the filmmakers had the fact-based, bizarre story of multimillionaire Robert Durst, a can-you-believe-this melodrama involving some, if not all, of the following elements:  murder, embezzlement, blackmail, cross-dressing, corpse dismemberment, and a woman now missing for 28 years.

With all of that material to work with, what did the producers of All Good Things come up with?  A routine Lifetime drama about a battered woman and her unpleasant in-laws.

For two-thirds of the movie, we watch Dunst play innocent bride to husband Gosling’s – well, it’s hard to peg Gosling’s portrayal of the enigmatic Durst (called “David Marks” in the film).  As played by Gosling, the man is sullen, distant, talks to himself, and has mother issues, but hardly seems the threatening type.  Lurking in the background, pulling son David’s strings, is omnipotent real estate mogul Sanford Marks, played grumpily by Frank Langella.

Katie (Dunst) wants children; David does not.  He hits her; she rationalizes his behavior.  She wants her freedom; he wants to control her.  Blah, blah, blah and haven’t we seen all of this dozens of times?  Katie agonizes.  Katie contemplates leaving David.  Dunst bares her boobies in a shower scene, which makes news in The Huffington Post and Vanity Fair.  Dunst … should never have been the focus of this film.

It’s only in the final third of the movie that the filmmakers turn their attention to the real story:  odd, odd David/Robert.  But by then it’s too late.  All of those elements that make the Durst story so compelling – the murder, madness and mayhem – are crammed into the final act like so many body parts into a suitcase.  The story becomes jumbled and teases us with what might have been a pretty good thriller.       Grade:  C+




Director:  Andrew Jarecki  Cast:  Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst, Frank Langella, Lily Rabe, Philip Baker Hall, Michael Esper, Diane Venora, Nick Offerman, Kristen Wiig, Stephen Kunken  Release:  2010


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Random scrawls on the wall (with a can of spray paint) about an American classic:


  • Ron Howard made the best decision ever by an actor when he moved from in front of the camera to the back.  Howard was, frankly, a dreadful actor.  Young Ronnie Howard got by on TV’s The Andy Griffith Show because he was such a cute little kid.  Older Ron got by, again, on Happy Days because Richie Cunningham was a stiff, awkward young character played by a stiff, awkward young actor.  American Graffiti, in many ways a delightful showcase for actors, grinds to a screeching halt every time Howard’s character, Steve, is the focus.  Worst scene:  Near the end of the film, Steve glances at his wristwatch and says to Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), “Where are you going?  It’s awfully early in the morning.”  If that reads bad, wait until you hear Howard say it.




  • Other than Howard, the actors shine in this film.  This is odd, because this is a George Lucas film, and the soft-spoken filmmaker is not considered an “actor’s director.”  Said Harrison Ford, who got his big break in Graffiti:  “George is not overly fond of the actual shooting part of filmmaking.”  Lucas was more at home in the editing room or creating special effects.  But in 1973 he paid attention to the characters in his movie and the result was magical.  I think American Graffiti is his best film, and yes, that includes the overblown Star Wars flicks.
  • I have mixed feelings about the use of nonstop period music in the film.  Lucas’s decision to do this was so successful that it influenced scores of movies to come — especially those set in the ’50s or ’60s.  Thanks to this rock-and-roll overkill, there was a time when I never again wanted to hear Buddy Holly.  Or The Platters.  Or The Flamingos, et al.


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  • This excerpt is from a 2001 review of American Graffiti on a Web site called thedigitalfix:  “Maybe it’s because we’re British, or maybe it’s because the film has lost most of its charm over the years, but either way, American Graffiti isn’t as good as the praise that has been heaped on it.”


Well, maybe it’s because I’m American, and maybe it’s because I was once an anxiety-riddled, naïve teenager cruising the streets of a small American town, but the film has lost none of its charm for me.  Lucas has called his first hit movie “uniquely American,” and I suppose that’s true — but only to an extent.  It’s a universal story because all of us were teenagers, but it’s American because it does such a wonderful job depicting a specific place and a specific time.      Grade:  A


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Director:  George Lucas  Cast:  Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Wolfman Jack, Bo Hopkins, Harrison Ford  Release:  1973


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