46 years old and still scaring: Rosemary’s Baby

Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow and John Cassevetes)

Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow and John Cassevetes)

(FYI,this is full of spoilers)

I started watching Roman Polanski’s brilliant 1968 adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel the other night on a whim. I have seen the film many times and my intent was to just watch the first 20 minutes or so because it was very close to my bedtime.

Well, that didn’t work out.

Rosemary’s Baby is such a strange but highly successful mix of dread and humor. Early on Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes) meet their eccentric neighbors Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) and their loopy presence (especially Hollywood treasure Gordon) runs counter to their diabolical plans. Minnie’s constant nosiness is hysterical; the way she manhandles Rosemary’s mail or slips a pointed question in between her constant jabbering. My favorite Gordon moment this viewing was the way she eats her dessert; it feels like a natural, from-the-hip bit of business that is positively droll.

Ruth gordon

Ruth Gordon

I love how once his deal with the devil is put into motion Guy’s smooth demeanor takes on a repulsive layer (Cassevetes always seemed to naturally walk the line between charming/dangerous so that was a great bit of casting) while, simultaneously, Rosemary’s physical appearance takes an ugly turn for the worse (“It’s Vidal Sassoon”). The young, hip Woodhouses are both hoodwinked and abused by this wicked band of seniors and it is exactly this older generation vs. younger that provides Polanski opportunities to pepper scenes with jet-black comedy. The finale is a great example of this. As Rosemary enters the room where her baby is (surrounded by the old Satanists dressed like they just got home from Sunday service), the big reveal is not really played big/deadly serious but rather works almost like a punchline; the oldies declaring “Hail Satan!”, one woman scolds Rosemary for being out of bed, the young Asian man with the camera snaps pictures, Krysztof Komeda’s music score cackles in evil delight, Minnie is concerned with the mark in the floor from the knife falling out of Rosemary’s hand. The scene constantly shifts between horror and humor.

The genuinely scary stuff comes earlier. Rosemary’s rape, framed as a fever dream, is still terrifying and visceral. It is a scene that could easily cause the film to falter but, miraculously,  even with hairy claws and make up it all works. Rosemary’s phone call to Dr. Hill from a city payphone is pure Polanski as his camera snakes around the booth, milking our mounting fear for her. Dr. Hill handing Rosemary over to Dr. Sapirstein and Guy, her brief escape at their apartment only to be recaptured and then going into labor is chilling stuff indeed. Polanski’s hand held, close-quarter, camera along with masterful editing by Sam O’Steen & Bob Wyman (notice how many times a scene ends one or two beats before you expect; creating visual tension), all gorgeously lensed by D.P. William Fraker create a kind of stylized/cinéma vérité blend.

It can’t be overstated how much the performances make this film work. I have already mentioned Gordon and her wonderful, Academy Award winning performance but the movie hinges on Rosemary. Mia farrow is never anything but fully committed to Rosemary. Her first trimester suffering is not all short hair and chalky make-up; it’s fused with gut wrenching performance. You can see her naivety slipping away from her as the film progresses. And there is a kind of boldness she takes on as the film heads to the finish which contrasts Guy’s progressive slinking into the background under the weight of his shame.

Polanski with camera

Polanski with camera

Polanski has made a career out of making the mundane sinister, poking at our psychological fears. Rosemary’s Baby takes the mundane, human situation of having to be polite to your old, pushy neighbors and throws the curve that you have actually opened the door to monsters.

Oh, yeah I wanted to mention that I love all of the rich character names: Rosemary Woodhouse, Minnie and Roman Castevet, Hutch, Dr. Sapirstein, Elise Dunstan, Mr. Nicklas, etc.

Posted in Essays | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

12 Years a Slave (2013)

12-years-a-slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup

Any time a film tackles history, especially history’s darkest corners, there is a temptation to paint in big strokes, to overstate and to preach. The most miraculous thing about “12 Years a Slave” is that it derives most of it’s power from an uncanny quietness; so many scenes are allowed to breath; to play out and then move to a place of reflection. Director Steve McQueen understands the importance and effectiveness of watching something happen and then lingering. It cannot be overstated how this approach leads to the film’s emotional resonance sneaking up on you. It slowly builds and expands until it washes over you. It’s powerful stuff and it never feels forced or obvious. At the center of the film’s emotional core is Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

Solomon is a free man living in Saratoga, New York with his family (the film begins in 1841). He is a skilled carpenter and violin player. He is offered a two week job playing violin in a traveling show by two charming men. But after a night on the town Solomon awakens to find himself in chains and on his way down south to be sold as a slave. He is renamed “Platt”. The next 12 years of Solomon’s life are spent enduring daily slave life, desperately seeking a way out of his situation. He struggles to hold on to the dignity and mindset of the man he was in New York, fearing that at any moment it will slip away from him. He stands next to men every day that carry that expression of empty surrender. He fears that fate worse than death itself. Throughout the film’s running time McQueen keeps his camera tight on Ejiofor’s face; his expressive eyes absorb the horrors around him and attempt to mask the turmoil. The longer the camera holds on him, the deeper the moment resonates.

McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley have created a Southern plantation world that is anything but morally clear cut or simple in characterization. The social dynamics of both the plantation owners and the slaves are written/performed with an unusual amount of complexity. The performances are uniformly strong. Only a late in the film (and brief) appearance by Brad Pitt feels like a small misstep -his immediate, movie star presence was a distraction for me. Otherwise, this is certainly one of the best films of the year. Brutal, lyrical, meditative and emotionally honest, “12 Years a Slave” is the best kind of film because it excels on all fronts. It doesn’t wring it’s hands or wallow in the carnage. It doesn’t amplify or simplify the events or the emotions. It takes this truly amazing story set in the most painful period of our country’s history and manages to find moments/beats you don’t expect which in turn provide fresh perspective. Highly recommended.

Posted in General Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Her (2013)

Joaquin Phoenix connects with Samanth

Joaquin Phoenix connects with Samantha

When Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) tells his coworker that he is dating his operating system, no look of shock or judgement is given. Theodore doesn’t really seem all that embarrassed in his proclamation either. Similarly, Theodore tells one of his few friends (Amy Adams) the news and her response is  imbued with curiosity and  intrigue rather than disbelief or disappointment. And that is one of the many moments where writer/director Spike Jonze speculates the trajectory of our technology/human infusion in his new film “Her”. The blending of our living, breathing world with the immediate and intimate technological world of the near future is portrayed as something seductive and inevitable. Moreover, the futuristic details of the film never seem that far removed from where we are now.  Visually and technologically speaking, the filmmakers have purposely created a world that seems less than (maybe)10 years away which diffuses the film’s sci-fi sheen. And it is in this muted futuristic  framing that Jonze poses one of the film’s key questions: what defines a relationship?

Theodore works for a company that writes personal letters for people, a kind of Hallmark of the future. He has been in a rut for some time following a separation from his wife (Rooney Mara). He is withdrawn and depressed. Enter OS1, a new operating system which Theodore brings home one evening and installs on his computer. Earlier in the film we learn that this operating system is the first of it’s kind; it has artificial intelligence and can adapt, assimilate and personally engage with it’s owner. Theodore’s OS1 names herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Understandably intrigued, he engages in conversation with Samantha and is quickly taken back by the ease and fluidity of their interaction. He carries her with him everywhere via his phone and an ear piece. It soon becomes clear that they are both falling for each other. And it’s here that the film rolls the dice and counts on us to accept the premise and take the journey with Theodore as he navigates uncharted territory. Or is the territory not that uncharted after all? One of the film’s strengths is the following through of ideas and concepts. If an operating system learns as it goes and enters a relationship with someone, what will it learn? If a relationship is based on mutual trust, understanding and the ability to connect, is it so strange to be in a relationship with an operating system if it can, in fact, do those things?

Jonze is working with questions and ideas that are not that far removed from Asimov but he is not that interested in predicting the future as he is in showing how we are susceptible to self-induced isolation; something we wrestle with as humans now. There is a scene where Theodore is sitting on some steps contemplating his life and Jonze keeps cutting from him sitting to what he sees which is people walking up and down the stairs talking to their operating systems and not each other. It’s an image we already see now (people talking on phones) and the idea of it progressing one step further (people talking on phones to their OS) feels almost natural.

“Her” is a quiet film, small in scale and emotionally muted but I was very engaged by Pheonix’s performance and the film’s ability to build upon questions of what happens when a OS/man relationship begins to evolve. Rather than inject high emotion or glaring satire, Jonze goes for a more poetic, lyrical tone which suits the story; especially when Theodore and Samantha’s relationship reaches it’s fate. I also enjoyed the look of the film with it’s endless light-through-glass buildings, pastel colors and slightly frumpy, eclectic costume design. Spike Jonze continues to make films that defy categorization and with “Her” he has also made one of the best films of 2013.  Highly recommended.

Posted in General Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

American Hustle (2013)

Amy Adams playing someone she's not playing someone she's not.

Amy Adams playing someone she’s not playing someone she’s not.

There is a scene in David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” where Jennifer Lawrence’s character is making small talk with her husband’s friends about her top coat nail polish. She explains her obsession; it is both super-sweet smelling but that just underneath that layer of sweetness is something distinctly sour. She then proceeds to have everyone at the table take a whiff. Similarly, the people at that table and, indeed, everyone else that pops up throughout the brisk 2 hour running time of “American Hustle” has those traits. We love these people. We are rooting for them despite the fact they spend most of their time conning, swindling, lying and selling out. Russell’s robust comedy about good old fashioned American reinvention and the art of the con does not really focus too much on where it’s going but, rather, revels in the ride. There is a prevailing sense of desperation that drives most of these characters. They are always, on some level, not being genuine or real. They live fake lives and our three main characters (Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper and an especially excellent Amy Adams) find themselves at a crossroads of wanting to shed their gift to dissimulate and perhaps do what normal people do.

Like the characters, the film itself plays us. Early on, Bale’s character warns “People believe what they want to believe” and that truism reveals itself to the character and us the audience. David O. Russell is not exactly himself either as he  intentionally or unintentionally apes Scorsese’s visceral camera playbook and slow motion/70’s soundtrack flourishes but I found it all irresistible.  Thankfully, Russell’s uncanny ability to always find a natural form of chaos with an ensemble cast is present; so many scenes crackle with the kind of energy that is sadly lacking from American cinema today. Highly Recommended.

Posted in General Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Not Show Business But The Business Of Shows #2

cvr

This is the 2nd post in a series that will offer tales, trials and tribulations of working in the movie theater biz.

Back in the spring I was given the opportunity to tell a story at the Know Theatre of Cincinnati as part of an ongoing series called “True Theatre” where real people tell true stories that are always based on a common theme. My story was part of their “True Mischief” night. It is easily my favorite story to tell from all of my years in the movie exhibition industry. As a setup I will tell you it involves 35mm film, kids and a mistake from hell perceived as a monumental prank. Here is the complete story..

 

Posted in Essays | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pure Cinema Above the Earth: Gravity (2013)

GRAVITYSomewhere around the 10 minute mark of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” that incredibly rare feeling came over me; that the film I was watching would be unlike anything else I have seen before. It has been rightly said in the last few weeks that “Gravity” represents a substantial leap foreword in how special effects are integrated into cinematic storytelling. Like “Star Wars” or “Jurassic Park”, Curón’s visuals overwhelm the viewer with their seamless, consistent, we-are-in-uncharted-territory quality.  See it in a theater on a big screen and see it in 3-D. See it in Imax if possible.

The film opens 600,000 feet above earth and for nearly it’s entire, brisk 90 minutes that is where it stays. The film’s greatest strength is the way the viewer is able to vicariously space-walk along with Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock in especially good form) and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney seemingly being himself). The camera hovers and glides around the characters in such a way that it confounds. How did they do that? I wanted to yell that out several times. At times it almost seemed as though they were actually in space shooting the footage. It’s that good. Everything plays out in almost real time. It’s uncommonly sparse. Two people in space. They are working on some stuff outside of the space shuttle when some debris from a Russian anti-satellite test comes hurling at them. That’s it. And yet, it is positively gripping.

Unfortunately, the film’s biggest weakness is the dialogue that these two people sometimes exchange. Curón’s screenplay is occasionally weighed down with platitudes and soapy speeches (though Bullock in particular succeeds in providing us a character we care about)   .   Thankfully, the film is a mostly visual experience and he still manages to transport and rivet us by his impressive directorial skills. The entire movie works like an elegantly choreographed dance which is aided, in no small part, by an incredibly effective soundscape (sound designer/editor Niv Adiri and his crew better get an Oscar). “Gravity” is an experience. It happens to us. It is not really a narrative film with an A-B-C plot. Because it does in fact work that way, it’s a shame that Curón’s screenplay provides the film’s only distractions. Otherwise, this is pure, visceral cinema at it’s finest. Roger Ebert often called the best movies an “out of body experience”. For me, “Gravity” was exactly that.

Posted in General Reviews | 2 Comments

For The Love Of Radio

The Shadow knows...

The Shadow knows…

This article is dedicated to my parents who introduced me to a number of great things in my formative years including the golden age of radio.

OTR stands for “Old Time Radio” and that has been the universally accepted, all-encompassing moniker for the golden age of radio recordings that have survived and I have always felt like that term was a little too hobbyist sounding (though most of these shows exist b/c of the love and devotion of hobbyists) and somewhat undermined the importance of these recordings. Old time radio sounds like something you buy at the Cracker Barrel gift shop. I prefer classic radio. A very minor peeve, anyway..

big-john-and-sparky

Jon Arthur (Big Jon) and Sparky. The show was originally broadcast out of Cincinnati on WSAI

I was born long after radio’s golden age (late 20’s to late 50’s- the majority of scripted comedies/dramas were gone by 1962) but I was exposed to radio shows very early on in life and I have been hooked ever since. At about age 4/5 my mother would have me sit down in front of our stereo console and listen to a kids show from the 50’s called Big John and Sparky (a show which, coincidentally, was originally produced/broadcast from my hometown of Cincinnati on WSAI) If you visit this site about the show you will see that it was revived for a while in the 70’s which explains how my mother was able to tune it in for me; something I wondered about but didn’t investigate until I started writing this. Right around the same time, my mother also helped me send away for a Superman radio show record that was an offer on Corn Flakes cereal boxes. I really loved that record and wore it out. It was exciting and kind of scary. It had a mysterious villain called the wolf.

Back of Corn Flakes box that advertised the Superman record

Back of Corn Flakes box that advertised the Superman record

There were 4 serialized episodes on this record and they centered around a plot to destroy passenger trains. One train, at the last minute, was sent down the wrong set of tracks and plunged into a hidden lake; a mental image that horrified my very young and very impressionable mind. Funny thing is, that incident was only mentioned in a conversation between two characters; it wasn’t dramatized and yet it still affected me! There was a lot of train terminology used in the dialogue and I remember trying to understand words like trestle   and phrases like “riding the blinds”. You can hear one of the episodes from that record here.

There was a revival period for classic radio in the early to mid 70’s that resulted in radio stations across the country re-running these classic programs. Probably the coolest thing to come out of that revival was veteran radio show producer Himan Brown’s CBS Radio Mystery Theater which was a newly produced, nationally syndicated show in the classic radio tradition. It was very successful and ran for 9 years! My father would occasionally have this on in the car or at home and, for the most part, it scared me to death.

Original ad for the CBS Radio Mystery Theater

Original ad for the CBS Radio Mystery Theater

The single biggest culprit of my fears was the first 90 seconds of each program. The opening of the show, with its creaky door and menacing music, was eerie and most effective. It didn’t matter what the story was; the opening convinced me I was going to have nightmares that night. You can check out a full episode here.

Sometime in the early 80’s my father started getting audio cassettes of classic radio shows from a company called Adventures in Cassettes (later absorbed by Radio Spirits who are pretty much the only legit company selling these shows now-more on them later). My Dad shared these with me (thanks Dad!) and it was during this time that I really became familiar with The Shadow, Suspense, Jack Benny, etc. Some of the shows were pretty forgettable to downright awful (Baby Snooks) while the really good stuff instantly won me over (Fibber Mcgee & MollyThe Great Gildersleeve). At the time of my discovery of these shows I was always drawn to anything that had scary/eerie elements (Lights Out, Hall of Fantasy), sci-fi (the still-fantastic X Minus One) or detective stuff (The Saint). My father had an episode of The Shadow that was unusually scary titled “The Nursery Rhyme Murders”. I was genuinely freaked out when I listened to it and had nightmares. I never forgot it. I listened to it again in the car yesterday as I was mulling over what to write about and the darn thing still creeps me out. You can listen to it here.

photo(6)

My personal recording from WVXU

The mid to late 80’s was also a boon for classic radio fans in Cincinnati (and on public radio stations in most of the bigger cities across the U.S.) as WVXU ran quite a few shows on a regular basis. It was during this period that I also began recording my favorites on to cassette; a few of which survive today as keepsakes. Being a little older, I started to have a deeper appreciation for shows Like The Jack Benny Program and Fibber McGee & Molly both of which contained whip-smart writing and were rich in characters. It also was the time that I became obsessed with X Minus One,

One of the best

One of the best

a sci-fi show that aired on NBC in the late 50’s and was distinguished by it’s writing; most episodes were adaptations of stories penned by the giants of sci-fi (Bradbury, Heinlein, Sturgeon, etc.).

In the late 80’s I discovered Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, a variety show straight out of the classic radio show tradition. My parents surprised me at the end of my senior year of high school by flying me to New York to see Keillor’s show at Radio City Music Hall. An amazing experience that brought my love of radio shows full circle.

In 1988, there were a number of articles, news reports, and exhibits to commemorate the 50th anniversary of The War of the Worlds broadcast of 1938 which caused an enormous, national panic. A statue was even unveiled in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey that year; the place the Martians were supposed to have landed according to Welles’ script! war_of_the_worlds_monument_grovers_mill_njOn October 30th, public radio (WVXU here in Cincy) ran a terrific documentary on the events of that night. I recorded it in my bedroom and have had it ever since. I posted it on Youtube here.  I really encourage you to listen to it as it gives all of the facts, as well as some hilarious anecdotes from people who experienced it first hand.  It also dispels all of the rumors that have been passed down for decades (like that people were killed-when in fact no deaths occurred as a result of the broadcast -just a lot of embarrassing accidents).

Confession: From my days in high school all the way up to and including last night I listen to a classic radio show as part of my routine to go to sleep at night. It started with cassettes and now I play them with an mp3 player and earbuds. Every night. So, yes, classic radio has been a part of my daily life now for almost 30 years. Radio shows still have a huge audience which is apparent by its vast presence on the internet. It’s everywhere. The only catch is finding quality recordings. In the early days of the internet, people transferred radio shows into poor quality mp3s and those shows have been recirculated over and over. There are, however, groups out there that have taken up the challenge of creating better recordings from tapes and records and making them available. The best example would be the Old Time Radio Researchers Group who’s work is available at their site.

And this brings me back to the company Radio Spirits and the issue of public domain. From the time that radio shows disappeared from the airwaves, collectors went to radio stations (and their dumpsters) and grabbed up everything they could get their hands on. It can’t be overstated how the efforts of these early collectors are the very reason we have the amount of episodes we have today. To give you some idea of what survives, radio history expert Jay Hickerson estimates that there are probably 150,000 episodes of classic radio still out there; the shocker is that that is only about 1% of what actually aired. For the last 50 years there has been a universal assumption that all OTR is public domain. Is that the case? Yes and No. The waters are muddy.

The cast of the Jack Benny  Program

The cast of the Jack Benny Program

One enthusiastic collector, a guy named Carl Amari, started a company called Radio Spirits in 1981 which sold radio shows in catalogs and later over the internet. He also played them on his college campus radio station. He played an episode of The Shadow and received a cease and cease-and-desist letter from a syndicator who controlled the rights to the program. In a move that may have been a first, he started paying royalties so that he could continue to play and sell certain programs. Moreover, he began buying exclusive rights to certain shows and started going after other sellers threatening legal action in an effort to basically monopolize the market of OTR. There are a number of articles out there on Radio Spirits and the often confusing laws involved; here is a good place to start.  In spite of the fact that the internet is literally flooded with OTR, Radio Spirits made as much as $14 million in a single year (Amari claimed that a sizable chunk of that went to licensing/royalties). Collectors have criticized Amari for hurting the very people that kept these recordings alive. He also received criticism for not being forthcoming with specifics of what shows he actually owns the rights to (he has admitted that some of his shows were indeed public domain but was not clear on which ones). Then, in 2007, Amari sold his company and the Radio Spirits battles with collectors pretty much went away. For the record, though incredibly overpriced, Radio Spirits’ tapes and CDs offer some of, if not the best, sound quality out there. I have heard some of their offerings and the restoration work is sometimes astonishing.

Classic radio programs are a rich, rewarding window to our past. Some of the shows were so well written and performed that they are instantly accessible to audiences a half century later. But even the ones that suffer from being dated or having lost a great deal of their relevance are still fascinating as a record of what earlier generations embraced as entertainment. Today, new listeners to OTR will have to make a little effort and adjust to the acting styles, the antiquated words and phrases, the way that characters had to often declare what they were physically doing or seeing (how else in this medium?) so that the listener knew what was going on. But the rewards are still there. One’s imagination can be a fertile, exciting place to spend 20 or so minutes while driving at night or laying in bed; nothing but the voices and you.

Some good resources:

Old Time Radio Researchers Library (the best, free, downloadable site out there imho)

My Old Radio (go to the episodes page for streaming)

Archive.org – One of the largest resources of just about everything including OTR

Old Time Radio Show Collectors Resources

Posted in Essays | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Recently Watched: Motel Hell/Good Hair/The Descendants

Rory Calhoun, Nancy Parsons and Paul Linke

Rory Calhoun and Nancy Parsons smooth talk a suspicious Paul Linke in “Motel Hell”

I had not seen the kooky “Motel Hell” (1980) since the late 80’s and was pleasantly surprised at how it holds up. Made on a modest budget, directed rather blandly and with an unevenly talented cast, the film still manages to work as a dark, entertaining comedy-horror that channels an E.C. Comics vibe. Rory Calhoun and Nancy Parson play a farmer and sister team that run a farm that happens to harvest people! The story is about as simple as they come and nothing here is really scary but it’s enjoyably bizarre. There are two elements that keep this film from being totally forgotten: One is the performances of the two leads. Their farmer-like work ethic and sincere love of their work is at once endearing and comical. The other is the central image of people buried up to their necks like heads of lettuce with their vocal cords cut out. That is something that you will never forget.

Another image I will never forget is that of  a $1000 weave. For his documentary “Good Hair” (2009), Chris Rock heads out to local beauty salons, businesses here and abroad (India – the largest exporter of real hair which is used in weaves) to find out what is behind the 9 billion (with a b) industry that caters exclusively to African-Americans (and accounts for 80% of ALL hair products sold in the U.S.) who want to “relax” their hair. Rock humorously impels high profile singers, actors and politicians (an especially funny Rev. Al Sharpton) to share their feelings on the difficult task of getting their hair to appear European as well as how hair is perceived in the black community.

Chris Rock watches a young girl getting her hair relaxed (via Sodium hydroxide).

Chris Rock watches a young girl getting her hair relaxed (via Sodium hydroxide).

We learn things like a woman’s hair is off limits in the bedroom. We learn that quality weaves are anywhere from $1000 to $3500 and that women in India shave their long hair for God while the temple turns around and sells it to buyers here in the states who make them. For some black viewers, it will likely be an eye opener as to who benefits from the money generated in the hair care industry as well as where the products come from and the damage they can cause. It will certainly be hugely informative to white audiences who are unaware that having “good hair” is something that black women (and men) have to spend enormous amounts of money and time to achieve and maintain. Highly recommended.

725119357

George Clooney, Nick Krause, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller

Finally, I watched “The Descendants” (2011) with George Clooney as a husband/father who must deal with the aftermath of a boating accident that leaves his estranged wife in a coma. The film takes place in Hawaii and the balmy, breezy locations along with the sweet Hawaiian music run counterpoint to the somber drama that unfolds. Clooney plays Matt King, a man not particularly close to his daughters and who’s marriage has been failing for some time. His wife in a coma, he tries to reconnect with his troubled, older daughter and his sensitive younger daughter.  He also happens to be the sole trustee of a family trust that includes 25,000 acres of pristine land on the island of Kauai. He is confronted with having to sell the land to multiple businesses that will turn it into another resort destination. The locals are against it while his cousins are pressing him to sell (they’re broke- and they will get some of the money from the sale). While all of this is going on he discovers that his wife was having an affair. He decides to find out who her suitor is.

Shifting frequently from humor to melancholy, The Descendants shows the awkward ways in which people deal with crisis and grief. Clooney is excellent here; digesting bad news, internalizing his anger, forcing himself to do the right thing, breaking under pressure. Also excellent are his two daughters (Amara Miller, Patricia Hastie) who deal with their mother’s situation differently but the pain is visible and heartbreaking. Funny, angry and ultimately full of heart, the Descendants is a good choice for a rainy day rental.

Posted in General Reviews | 1 Comment

Epic Battle of Sensibilities: Pacific Rim

Pacific-Rim_05

You take one very talented, Mexican director. You give him a big, American budget courtesy of a big, American studio (Warner Bros.) to make a Japanese monster movie. What do you get? You get director Guillermo del Toro’s signature elements (strange characters, insect imagery, dark locations and, of course, Ron Perlman), you get big studio elements (egotistical, Top Gun pilot banter, military camaraderie, bombs counting down with big, red digital clocks) and you get Japanese Kaiju (monsters! minus their significance in Japan). Though it never seems to gel completely, it ultimately succeeds in bringing us great, big monsters battling the human race. And isn’t that why you go see a movie like this? It is less successful at getting us to root for our military heroes (Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba) all whom are given the limited, cliche interaction we have seen and heard since forever. More colorful and interesting are the minor characters (Charlie Day, Ron Perlman) who provide some humor and variety and seem to align more to del Torro’s view of things.

The story gets going right away (yeah!) and we learn that the Kaiju have been attacking the earth via a portal under a crevasse in the Pacific Ocean. The humans combat these creatures with giant robots that are controlled by 2 people who lock into one another (via their brains – it’s called entering the “drift”). And that is really all you need to know because the rest of the movie is monsters and robots rocking and rolling in 200 million dollar cinema fashion. And as visually impressive as these scenes are, del Torro severely hampers them by choosing to shoot almost everything at night or at night and in/under the water. Moreover, the camera often stays too close to the action (i wanted more establishing shots-more shots that show us both figures at the same time) Also, I would say that at least half of the battles were a complete struggle to follow what was going on (I saw it in Imax 3D and I was sitting too close which may have been part of the problem). It was a very mixed experience but I really love a good monster movie and I enjoyed it enough to say I liked it but be warned: If this is not 100% your cup of tea then duck into “Grown Ups 2”. Wait, scratch that idea. See something else.

 

Posted in General Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Super Somber: Man of Steel

Amy Adams, Henry Cavill and Antje Traue

Amy Adams, Henry Cavill and Antje Traue

It’s hard not to have preconceived notions about what you think a Superman movie should be. The story of Superman is ingrained in our collective pop culture subconscious.  But I was optimistic and open to any and all things new. I think it also has to be hard for the filmmakers of a new Superman movie not to want to cling a little to what has come before. The 1978 Superman was a landmark film. It  ushered in the modern superhero film and it also happened to be a terrific movie so I imagine that anyone taking on a new adaptation is going to be conflicted/challenged in taking this well known mythology in a new direction. But that is what director Zack Snyder and company have tried to do with “Man of Steel”. There are a number of changes made to the Superman mythology this go round and some of them are good ideas. Unfortunately, it’s just not a very good movie.

I will pass on the plot. Here’s my reaction:

It is utterly joyless. Humorless. It’s no fun. The narrative is fragmented in a way that undermines the story and the pacing. There is a drab,  somber tone that permeates the whole film. There is very little to cling to here in the way of characters. Kevin Costner comes the closest. Henry Cavill’s Superman is mostly flat and distant. There is a lot of characters telling us things that the film has already shown us. The last third of the film is wall to wall action that is repetitive, bloodless and mostly someone (Superman, Zod or one of Zod’s entourage) being thrown through a building. Lots and lots of damaged buildings. Lots. It never feels like a Superman or even a superhero movie. It felt more like Independence Day meets Dune. Snyder’s direction is surprisingly pedestrian. I wasn’t expecting 300-style visuals but everything here is handled with little inspiration.

Random thoughts

*Marvelous production design by Alex McDowell

*The death of Jonathon Kent is an embarrassingly bad scene.

*Jor-El’s explanation to Kal-El of why he and Lara didn’t escape with him off Krypton barely made sense.

*I really loved the idea of Superman having to adjust to Earth’s environment and that his senses were often in overload mode.

* I loved the look of the Krypton computer technology.

*Ihop and Sears

Posted in General Reviews | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment