Monthly Archives: September 2010



The last time I was really fooled by a movie – by that I mean having my socks blown off, folded, and replaced in my bureau drawer – was in 1999, when writer-director M. Night Shyamalan gave us The Sixth Sense.   Shyamalan followed that ingenious thriller with a string of duds and, although I should know better by now, I continue to hope that someday he will rediscover his old magic.  That’s why I had (dwindling) hopes for Devil, the new horror film not directed by Shyamalan, but produced by him and based on his story.

I give up.  Devil does have a few nice moments, but those come courtesy not of the script but of director John Erick Dowdle, who manages to deliver a few jolts in the movie’s interesting locale:  a cramped office-building elevator in which five people are trapped.  One of the five is the devil – or so we are told in a lame narrative device.

One by one, the members of this little group are bumped off.  Whodunit?  Which of them is the devil?  This setup presents a storytelling challenge, because anyone who has ever read Agatha Christie, or seen more than a few films like this one, will probably anticipate Shyamalan’s obligatory “twist.”

What we are left with is yet another uninspired Shyamalan movie, a 30-minute Twilight Zone episode stretched out to feature-film length.  That’s not good enough, not from the man who gave us The Sixth Sense.  Shyamalan is either unwilling or unable to recapture that old magic, and so, like I said earlier, I give up.       Grade:  C




Director:  John Erick Dowdle  Cast:  Chris Messina, Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O’Hara, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend, Jacob Vargas, Matt Craven, Joshua Peace, Caroline Dhavernas  Release:  2010



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Robert Downey, Jr. is a great actor, no question in my mind.  But Downey is not – I repeat, not – Sherlock Holmes.  Not in my world.  That cinematic honor goes to either Jeremy Brett, in the superb British TV series, or to Basil Rathbone, in the old Hollywood movies.  And Jude Law versus Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson?  Please.  Watch Rathbone and Bruce in one of their better Universal entries, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, by clicking here.


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I don’t know about you, but when I see adjectives like “heartbreaking,” “poignant,” and “unforgettable” in the blurbs for art-house movies, I tend to move on to something else.  Too often, those words are code for, “You might want to bring some Kleenex, and by the way, you can leave your brains in the lobby.”

Never Let Me Go, director Mark Romanek’s adaptation of the brilliant novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, is all of those adjectives – but it is also an experience that will make you think.

When I found out they were filming Ishiguro’s book, my first thought was, “They’re going to screw it up.”  I figured the producers would give Ishiguro’s layered story to some hack screenwriter who would butcher it into something unrecognizable.  They would also probably miscast the film, handing key roles to an action star and a starlet of the month.  The musical score would likely be wildly inappropriate.

So imagine my surprise when the film concluded, the end credits appeared and … I had no complaints.  Romanek captured both the beauty and the unsettling atmosphere of the novel, which is great news for lovers of the book – but quite possibly box-office poison.  There is not, last time I checked, a big market for movies that end like this one does.

It’s near impossible to describe the plot without ruining it.  I’ll just say it focuses on three students at a rather mysterious English boarding school.  Their fate is really all of our fates – just more poignant, heartbreaking and, most of all, unforgettable.       Grade:  A-




Director:  Mark Romanek  Cast:  Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Izzy Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe, Ella Purnell, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins, Kate Bowes Renna, Hannah Sharp  Release:  2010


Never3        Never4

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A Cure for High Unemployment

There is a remedy for the nation’s unemployed:  aggravating television commercials.

I propose that, in order to receive government benefits, citizens without jobs be required to have their TV sets tuned to regular broadcast or cable channels, 24 hours a day.  No mute buttons, no recording devices.

I guarantee that within a week, unemployment will plummet to below 5 percent.  Desperate to get out of the house and away from their television sets, these people will be escaping from:


Actor   Pig2


1)  Ellen Page and her Cisco ads.  I will never again pay to see this actress in a theatrical film, because she already resides in my living room, thanks to these nauseating, non-stop commercials.  2)  That Pierce Brosnan lookalike in the irritating Geico ads.  3)  The fingernails-scratching-on-a-blackboard music in Progressive ads.  4)  The cloying music that permeates Cialis commercials.








Poor Randy Jackson.  He is the Frank Gifford of our times.  Gifford, you might recall, was part of the original trio of broadcasters on Monday Night Football, along with Howard Cosell and Don Meredith (I am not counting short-timer Keith Jackson).  Gifford was the dull third wheel in this group.  Meredith and Cosell left the show, but Gifford soldiered on, boring us to tears for decades.

Randy Jackson, third wheel on American Idol, will no doubt stay with the show until the fat lady sings.




Good reason not to vote for Christine O’Donnell:





Good reason to vote for Christine O’Donnell:




To paraphrase George Sanders in All About Eve, “My dear, you have a point.  An idiotic one, but still a point.”


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You know me.  I’m a tough guy – right?  I’m the kind of macho jerk who cracks a smile when Leonardo DiCaprio sinks down to Davy Jones’s Locker at the end of Titanic.  If someone mentions to me that Meryl Streep dies in a film, I’m thinking, “Good.  Let’s go see it.  I’m in the mood for a comedy.”  And yet here is this 1988 drama called Running on Empty – about a piano-playing kid who prefers Beethoven to baseball, for crying out loud – and the damned thing gets to me.  I mean, it really gets to me.

It’s hard to pinpoint what makes this movie so emotionally powerful.  No major character dies.  No one gets cancer.  The dog doesn’t expire (although it does get abandoned) and, in one sense, the film has a happy ending.

Director Sidney Lumet’s film is about a family of four on the run from the FBI.  Back in the ‘60s, mother and father (Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch) were radical anti-war protestors, and in one foolish escapade, they planted a bomb that went off and accidentally blinded a janitor.  Since then, they have been on the lam, moving with their two sons (River Phoenix and Jonas Abry) from one small town to another, aided by an underground network of sympathizers.  The story is reportedly inspired by recent newsmaker William Ayers and the Weather Underground, but politics is not at the heart of this film; family is. 

Lumet is no ordinary director, and the Oscar-nominated script by Naomi Foner keeps it simple, with plenty of “small” moments.  There aren’t many swelling-violin scenes, there are no car chases, just a series of touching vignettes.  But damn, some of those scenes are wrenching.  And the acting?  Forget about it.  There is one exchange between Lahti and Steven Hill, who plays her father, that had me … oh, never mind.  I’m a tough guy, dammit.        Grade:  A




Director:  Sidney Lumet  Cast:  Christine Lahti, River Phoenix, Judd Hirsch, Jonas Abry, Martha Plimpton, Ed Crowley, L.M. Kit Carson, Steven Hill, Augusta Dabney, David Margulies  Release:  1988


Running3            Running4


Running5       Watch the Trailer  (click here)


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“Every American should see this movie to understand the horrors of slavery.” – comment on the Internet Movie Database.

“The most disgusting, contemptuous insult to decency ever to masquerade as a documentary.” – film critic Roger Ebert, in his 1972 review of Goodbye Uncle Tom.

So is Goodbye Uncle Tom a must-see film, as the IMDB commenter insists, or was Ebert right to vilify the “shockumentary”?  I tend to side with the IMDB commenter – although Ebert might have a point.  Uncle Tom is an uncompromising look at slavery, and by that I mean it’s graphic, painful, and extremely unpleasant.  But did it have to be so incendiary, if only to make its point?  And what about the methods used by Italian filmmakers Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco  Prosperi, who might have callously exploited impoverished Haitians to depict 19th-century American slaves?

Jacopetti and Prosperi made their notorious movie utilizing news footage of racial unrest in the 1960s and combining it with dramatizations of actual people and events from early America.  To play the slaves, real Haitians (many of them underage) were recruited, and they are filmed in degrading and humiliating scenarios, often completely naked.   Exactly how Jacopetti and Prosperi convinced hundreds of Haitians to go along with this is debatable, but most of them were poor, uneducated, and living under the harsh regime of “Papa Doc” Duvalier.  In other words, they were living under conditions not dissimilar to slavery itself.

You can accuse Jacopetti and Prosperi of exploitation, but certainly not of sugar-coating history.  Southern whites generally come off as monsters in the film, but Europeans, Northerners, and even some blacks are also portrayed in a negative light.  You probably won’t “like” Goodbye Uncle Tom, but you will be impressed by it.  A haunting musical score by Riz Ortolani – bizarrely upbeat during otherwise horrific scenes – adds to the movie’s impact.

The problem for Jacopetti and Prosperi is that a lot of this stuff comes off as pure titillation.  Young black men are stripped, poked, prodded and whipped.  Young black women are stripped, poked, prodded and raped.  The camera frequently lingers on their nudity in close-up detail.

Goodbye Uncle Tom’s sexual politics, graphic violence, and pessimistic outlook caused it to be banned or censored in some countries.  But just as the Jews make certain that the Holocaust is not forgotten, that IMDB user is also correct:  Every American should see this.        Grade:  A-




Directors:  Gualtiero Jacopetti, Franco Prosperi   Release:  1971




Note:  There are at least two versions of the film on DVD, one of them with 13 minutes of footage excised.


Tom4a Tom4b

Tom4c Tom4d


Tom5     Watch the Trailer  (click here)


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  by Stephen Hawking, Leonard Mlodinow



I miss Carl Sagan.  Perhaps the late, great scientist-teacher was simplistic – even condescending – to laymen when he described scientific concepts, but at least Sagan’s message got through.  The Grand Design, famed physicist Stephen Hawking’s latest attempt to dumb down physics for the general reader, has the same problems as did Hawking’s A Brief History of Time:  dense mathematical formulas and language that only future Einsteins could love (and comprehend).

Hawking and his co-author seem to understand that multiverses and string theory are difficult to grasp, so they compensate in the worst possible manner.  After particularly complex passages about numerical formulas or mind-bending worlds, they will toss in a lame pun, basically downgrading from doctorate lecture to show-and-tell time for the kiddies.  It’s insulting and annoying.  There are fascinating concepts at play in this book; it’s just too bad that the geniuses behind them aren’t skilled in basic communication.  Sagan – whatever alternate universe you are in – please come back.  Science needs you.


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Once upon a time, Kathleen Turner was a big Hollywood star, Nicolas Cage appeared in interesting movies, Jim Carrey was a bit player, and Francis Ford Coppola was out to prove he could do more than make tough-guy movies.  The result was Peggy Sue Got Married, a nostalgic, touching film in which Turner’s title character travels back in time to high school.  Watch it for free by clicking here.


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Is it movie-lore sacrilege to suggest that Cary Grant was miscast in one of his most beloved roles?  I recently re-watched Arsenic and Old Lace, director Frank Capra’s 1944 version of the popular stage play, and later I learned that comedian Bob Hope was originally sought for the lead:  Mortimer Brewster, the set-upon nephew of two spinsters who just happen to be poisoning their gentleman callers.

Grant, of course, immortalized the part of Mortimer with a frantic, bug-eyed rendition of the nephew as he tries to make sense of his aunts’ bizarre behavior – and also save their skins.  But when I again watched this delightful (albeit a bit dated) farce, I was struck by two things:  1) the brilliant, subtle portrayal of sociopath Jonathan by actor Raymond Massey, and 2) Grant’s over-the-top, anything-but-subtle frenzy as Mortimer.  To me, Grant overacts something fierce.

When the stage directions call for Mortimer to do a double-take, Grant delivers whiplash.  When he is supposed to be surprised, his eyes burst from their sockets.  When he’s asked to dash across the stage, Grant does acrobatics, leaping and spilling over furniture.  It’s all very amusing, but also distracting.  I have to wonder, would Mortimer have been better played by Hope, an actor more suited to roles that emphasize self-preservation?  Would a sweating, paranoid Hope have been better than a mugging, exasperated Grant?

It’s a moot point, but what is clear is the hilarious turn by Massey, who turns the “Karloff” killer into a prickly psycho whose predominant characteristic is not malice, but rather vanity.  Massey’s glaring reactions to anyone who comments on his physical appearance are hysterical.  Also on the plus side:  Director Capra, who can be mawkish, is restrained here by the limitations of playwright Joseph Kesselring’s plot.  And Josephine Hull, so wonderful six years later in a similar role in Harvey, gives us the ultimate fussy eccentric.     Grade:  B+




Director:  Frank Capra  Cast:  Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey, Peter Lorre, Jack Carson, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, James Gleason, Grant Mitchell, John Alexander  Release:  1944


Arsenic3      Arsenic4

                                             Watch the Trailer  (click here)


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I am an addict.  As addictions go, mine is pretty ugly.  Yes, my name is Grouchy, and I am a Minnesota Vikings fan.

Having this sickness is not easy.  There is no team in professional sports more cursed than the Vikings, no team that does a better job of punishing its fans.  Heard of the “Hail Mary” pass?  The term was born in 1975, when Dallas victimized the Vikings — and I was in the stands.  Heard of the “love boat” scandal?  That boat was filled with Vikings.  Can you name one of two teams in the NFL to make four Super Bowl appearances — and lose all four games?  Guess which team boasts the only player in NFL history to run the wrong way for a touchown? That would be Viking Jim Marshall, way back in 1964.

One day in the 1980s, my sister ran into Howard Cosell on a sidewalk in New York.  During their conversation, it came out that she was a Vikings fan.  Cosell snorted and said to her, “They’ll never win anything.”




And now Brett Favre is a member of this cursed team.  Let us see what horrors this new season brings.


Sainz Appeal




Generally, I don’t care much for professional jocks, who too often are rude, entitled jerks.  But I side with the New York Jets concerning this female sports reporter brouhaha.  Mexican journalist Ines Sainz wants to have it both ways.  She wants to be respected as a serious reporter while strutting around the men’s locker-room in skin-tight attire.  She uses sex to advance her career — does she really expect these guys to just ignore that?


Sainz     Gaga2


Lady Gags Me




Speaking of pigskin … there is only one way that Lady Gaga can top the meat dress she wore to the MTV Video Music Awards.  Next time, she should wear something with live critters.


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