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Lousy Movie Reviews

I enjoy writing reviews of (moderately) recent movies and I get the impression they generate some traffic to this humble blog.

Once in a very great while, somebody comments that I only seem to write about movies that I like.
I don’t really understand this observation as I normally see no point in writing about things I don’t like and nothing makes me so unhappy as a poorly-made film.  Since I see no point in making my precious few visitors suffer, I have always shied away from reviewing anything that fails to make the grade.
But I recently noticed I’ve jotted down some thoughts about a few films that I viewed with some initial hope only to have those hopes dashed by the time the closing credits have finished rolling. And many critics will tell you that they often enjoy writing about bad fims as it allows them to give vent to their deep wellsprings of sarcasm fed by their own deeper waters of insecurity.
Since nobody’s ever accused me of lacking either sarcasm or insecurity, I guess I may as well go for it…

Joaquin Phoenix in Her

“Her” – Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johannsen in a Spike Jonze film that is part psychodrama and part Science Fiction about a lonely man who cannot maintain lasting personal relationships, then buys an Artificially Intelligent operating system for his PC and proceeds to fall in love with the female avatar which grows out of it.
While the idea is intriguing, and both Phoenix and Johannsen are both talented actors (Ms. Johnannsen should be given a special award for her hitherto unappreciated talents as a voiceover actress; she is that good), the script and the director don’t ever really seem to know exactly where they want to go with it.
Studded with great supporting performances from people like Amy Adams (cast against type as a mousy, non-descript platonic friend), Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader (both also appearing in voiceover roles), and little touches like the setting for the man’s job (“SweetHandwrittenLetters.com”), nevertheless the film seems to run out of steam in the last 20 minutes.
The ending is less than satisfactory and the overall tone is more than a little depressing.  Forget what the New York and L-A critics may have written about existentialism in film, this one isn’t worth the effort except for the cultish and curious who don’t mind spending a little extra time discussing it with their therapists.

Into The Woods Ensemble Cast Image

“Into the Woods” – Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Tracey Ullman (yay!) and James Cordon (also yay!) are more than equal to the task of fleshing out Steven Sondheim’s libretto and songs (BTW, Meryl Streep singlehandedly steals the movie), but why is this a Disney film?
Based on the best-known fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, the resulting effect is more than a little grim in the most literal sense of the word.
Touching heavy-handedly on topics like poverty, hunger, infertility, envy, theft, greed, murder and more besides, the tone of the proceedings never really lightens for more than a minute.
This is in fact an opera because every line is sung.  Once again, Ms. Streep proves herself equal to the task at hand, as do Ms. Blunt, Ms. Ullman and Mr. Cordon.  The supporting players are all talented and the film sets out on a promising note, interweaving such old school tales as Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and more.
But when Johnny Depp as the big bad wolf winds up getting lost in the sauce (he’s barely there for a cup of coffee), one begins to wonder just what is going on.  And if that’s what the viewer is thinking, what were the producers and director doing all this time?
Once again, the overall tone is more than a little cynical and dark and even the most willing of audiences will begin to wonder why – Meryl Streep notwithstanding — they are bothering to watch this.
Add to this one of the cardinal sins of filmmaking: the movie isn’t ready to stop when we are.  This is a feeling I have rarely experienced in a film of any sort: “Can we please wrap this up already?”
You can give this one an ‘A’ for effort and even one for ambition, but sadly the resulting film winds up earning little higher than a ‘B-minus’ for actual execution.  The Disney imprint and source material notwithstanding, this one is not for the kiddies.
Sorry, Walt, better luck next time.
“Green Lantern” – Ryan Reynolds is not a bad actor and if any support is needed for that argument just consider how well he was received in this past year’s mega-hit for Marvel, “Deadpool.”  But this effort some 4 or 5 years previously might be better subtitled, “Dead On Arrival.”

green lantern 1960 comic book cover

Back in the days when I read comic books regularly, Green Lantern was a title I tended to enjoy.  Test pilot Hal Jordan, deputized into the interplanetary Green Lantern Corps, was a role model a lot of young boys wanted to emulate.  Unfortunately, the character in this film is more of an intergalactic schlemiel and a self-centered one at that.  And that’s just the tip of the green iceberg…
Again, it’s important to remember that once an actor’s work is done he must entrust his efforts to a director, an editor and a movie studio (in this case, Warner Brothers) and have some faith that things will turn out well in the finished product.  One suspects Mr. Reynolds may have had some doubts.  The screenplay credited to four different writers may have been giving off some telltale fumes early on in the proceedings. By then, of course, the cast is more or less trapped and must make their best effort and pray like there’s no tomorrow.

Green Lantern 2011 movie poster

Unfortunately for everyone involved, tomorrow showed up right on schedule.
And Mr. Reynolds is not the only one whose craft is squandered: Tim Robbins and the late Michael Clark Duncan make the best contributions they can, but Robbins is limited to a mugging pantomime best suited to the silent film era, and Duncan is cast in a voiceover role where he is permitted to emote but barely gets 4 entire minutes for his character to do his stuff.
If only costune design and CGI effects alone were enough to carry this movie, but sadly, for all of Green Lantern’s powers, he is at a loss when confronted with a hackneyed script, overcomplicated plot and ham-fisted direction.
Oh and by the way, could we please dispense with all the green-saturated background and foreground shots?  We get it: he’s the GREEN Lantern, already…  Geez!
And if anybody at DC is listening, please, NO REBOOTS!
 This has been a public service announcement…

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Tom Tomorrow Goes Retro!

Please do not adjust your settings on your device!

Our stalwart colleague, Tom Tomorrow has gone all monotone this week.

And – for once – he makes no comment about a certain New York City Real Estate mogul, a certain self-styled Socialist or anyone who used to be the U-S Secretary of State!  How refreshing!

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Thanks for visiting and know you ARE appreciated!  See ya again real soon!

book-review

Book Review: “Superman” by Larry Tye

Or “The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero

2012, Random House, 409 pages, with photos, appendix, notes, bibliography and index, US $27.00

'Superman' Comic Book Cover
Cover art for the ‘Superman’ comic book, 1930s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A scholarly work examining the two men who created the “Man of Tomorrow”, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, their own life stories and cultural backgrounds and how these factors influenced the mythos behind the character who became the first and foremost superhero of them all.

In the hands of New York Times bestselling author Larry Tye, Siegel and Shuster’s story is nearly as thrilling as the icon they created. Tye finds the bonds they had in common as immigrants from Eastern Europe, as adolescents and Depression-era nerds.

With equal deftness, Tye also examines the ways in which these two men differed and the cultural forces that shaped their sensibilities.

Superman Comic Early Summer Issue

Here are a few of the opening lines taken from the book’s Preface:

“The most enduring American hero of the last century is someone who lived half his life in disguise and the other half as the world’s most recognizable man. He is not Jack Kennedy or Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, Batman or Jerry Seinfeld, although all of them were inspired by him. It was on his muscle-bound back that the iconic comic book took flight and the very idea of the superhero was born. He appeared on more radio broadcasts than Ellery Queen and in more movies than Marlon Brando, who once pretended to be his father.”

From the crucible of Seigel and Shuster’s personalities and their commonality of time, place and culture, sprang a character who set a genuine precedent. The “Man of Steel” became a mega-industry at a time when such were hard to find.

Furthermore, Krypton’s most famous son has successfully transitioned from newspaper comic strip to comic book to literary novel to radio adventure series to the television series that helped nurture that medium’s popularity to the motion picture franchise that continues to the present day.

Does Tye read too much into all of this?

Maybe, but there can be no disputing the longevity of Kal-El / Clark Kent / Superman, all of whom are swiftly (“faster than a speeding bullet…”) approaching the 80th anniversary of the saga’s origin.

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 Let’s look at a few examples of the nuggets Tye mines from the facts at hand and a dollop of imagination:  In the previous paragraph there’s a mention of Kal-El, Clark Kent and Superman all in one phrase.

Now do we see a representation of three identities into one persona anywhere else in Western thinking? Oh yes, Tye says, and points to the psychological concepts of the Id, the Ego and the Super-ego (Coincidence?)

And then there’s the Trinity…

Tye also dips into the Hebrew language with which Seigel and Shuster were familiar to discover that the names of Superman’s father (“Jor-El”) and the infant Superman (“Kal-El”) have translated equivalents in English. I’ll be content to let you discover them for yourself.

Tye even stretches his imagination enough to postulate that since both of Superman’s creators were Jewish, it therefore follows that Supes himself must be regarded as a Member of the Tribe.

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Then there are all the other lives that were touched and radically altered by this epic figure.

George Reeves as Superman

George Reeves became one of the earliest actors to achieve major star status in the televised “Adventures of Superman” TV show. Prior to donning the tights and cape, his most high-profile work was a brief supporting role in “Gone With the Wind”.

Actress Noell Neal became so identified with the role of Lois Lane in the 1950s she merited a non-speaking cameo role more than 20 years later in the late-1970s theatrical motion picture “Superman: The Movie.”

Christopher Reeve, a one-time classmate of Robin Williams at Julliard Academy, accomplished his breakout performance in that film, as did Margot Kidder.

margot kidder and christopher reeve

And as I write these words, the passing of Jack Larson was less than six months previously.  He accomplished a wide range of achievements in the field of Entertainment, but what was the nearly unanimous choice of headline or lead sentence?

George Reeves and Jack Larson

That almost 70 years earlier he had portrayed cub reporter Jimmy Olsen of “The Daily Planet” on “The Adventures of Superman”. He even had his own featured line of comic books, billed as “Superman’s Best Friend”.

And that brings us to another point: Superman spun off supporting characters into their own lines of comic books like some sort of literary centrifuge.  Jimmy Olson, Lois Lane, Superboy, Supergirl…

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And so we come to another point: Superman, as his name implied, was an absolutely unprecedented sales juggernaut for his publishers, but not for his creators…

They sold the rights to their creation, either wittingly or unwittingly, (it depends on whose version you choose to believe) for a relatively paltry sum, even by the economically distressed standards of the 1938 American economy: $130 US.

Superman 10th Anniversary Cover

And this is where the “Bad Guys” come in… Many may be incensed to learn that Superman’s first publisher was in fact a hustling, corner-cutting, hard-nosed businessman with a background in many fields, including pornography (“Man of Steel” indeed!)

Action Comics Super Maid

This book is almost Herculean in its size, range, scope and the sheer effort that obviously went into it. Most books of this variety normally lack a bibliography and notes; Tye has obviously done his homework.

The closest thing I could find to a drawback in this effort is, ironically, a consequence of its subject’s continuing popularity: it’s publication four years previously means that the most recent iterations of the mythos are necessarily absent from its pages. A revised edition, one assumes, will be forthcoming in the not-too-distant future.

Action Comics The Lady & The Lion

Meanwhile, the book makes for remarkably enjoyable reading, whether you are into Superman as a form of escapism or a subject for serious study.

Super-recommended! (4.85 out of 5 stars)

Here are a few “fun facts” gleaned from the book…

  • Early editors and publishers were concerned Superman’s rear end was too big.

  • Superman’s origin backstory wasn’t wasn’t fully sketched out from the beginning, rather it was published only after the character had been in print for almost a decade.

  • Same thing with Kryptonite: the idea of some alien mineral that could deprive Supes of his powers and invulnerability came only after sales of his stories began to level off after WWII.

  • Did you know that at one point there were about a dozen different varieties of Kryptonite? Depending on the color, it could rob Superman of selected powers or all but one or all of them altogether. Writers and editors eventually abandoned this part of the story because it sometimes made the stories too complicated and many devoted readers found it too convenient as a plot device.

  • The phrase “Up, up and away!” didn’t come into use until actor Bud Collyer portrayed the title role in the Superman radio series; it helped the audience “see” the action in their imaginations when Superman took flight.

  • Collyer spoke as a tenor when he was in character as Clark Kent, but dropped into his baritone range as Superman, thereby nailing the job for himself by saving the producers from having to hire two different actors for the role(s).

  • Similarly, the familiar litany of Superman’s attributes (Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound…) was another wrinkle that was added when the character made the transition to Radio.  It allowed for the addition of sound effects that heightened the experience for the imaginative audience.

  • Originally, Supes didn’t fly, he lept, hence the bit about leaping over tall buildings.

  • On the “Adventures of Superman” television series, actor George Reeves took flight by jumping on a trampoline or springboard and the film editors took matters from there.  So he did leap.

  • By a similar process, he “landed” by swinging into the camera shot from a trapeze or suspended swing.

  • Clark Kent may have started as a mild-mannered newspaper reporter for “The Daily Planet”, but he has since been employed as a cable television news anchorman and, more recently, as a reporter for an online streaming news website. (See what you miss if you don’t keep up with the latest issue?)

 

Five Remaining Presidential Candidates

Mayday +2

And then there were five…  And tomorrow, how many?

Two, three, or four?

We should be so lucky!…

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Your humble servant and blogger is truly grateful for your visit!

Please keep checking back as I have hopes of finishing one of the book reviews later this week.

Oh and by the way, Happy Mother’s Day to my wife and my mother, who , I can assure you, are two completely different people

(What does that say about our current culture that I even have to spell that out? Sheesh!)

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Movie Review: “Saving Mr. Banks”

Walt Disney Studios, 2014, directed by John Lee Hancock, with Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Colin Farrell, 125 minutes, Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements including some unsettling images.)

If you’ve never read P L Travers’ books, and only know her most famous character from the silver screen, you don’t really know Mary Poppins.

Mary Poppins Movie Poster

Not long after I had seen the Disney movie when I was around 12 years old, I came across one of the books in my local library.  I started reading and was almost at once disappointed. Disney’s Mary Poppins was a nanny extraordinaire, but this woman in the book was nothing at all like what I had expected.
On the printed page, Mary Poppins was uptight, pedantic, inflexible and a disciplinarian, in short nothing less than a stereotypical Edwardian prig.
Like most of the children of 20th century America I was at a loss to understand how the character in the book could have anything in common with the charming woman who had won my heart in the movie theatre.

Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins

What happened in between those two productions, of course, was the intervention of Walter Elias Disney. And thereby hangs the tale of “Saving Mr. Banks.”
Not your run of the mill Disney fare; this film not only has a somewhat darker, more introspective tone, it also brings us the unique experience of seeing Walt Disney himself – here portrayed by Tom Hanks – playing a role as a major character. Emma Thompson is P L Travers, the author who has kept Disney at bay for 20 years, unwilling to allow her precious property to fall into Walter’s crass commercial Hollywood hands.

Walt Disney vs Tom Hanks

The movie flashes back and forth between Travers’ childhood in the Australian outback and her present day experience encountering Walt Disney and his staff in Hollywood with undiluted horror and disapproval.

saving-mr-banks Travers dismayed at storyboard

In Australia, we meet Travers’ father, played by Colin Farrell as a loving man possessed by the sort of demons we don’t usually find in a Disney movie.  Her mother, seemingly helpless in the face of such challenges, teeters on the brink of psychological collapse.

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When the worst comes to pass, an aunt on her mother’s side of the family arrives to take the family in tow, complete with bird handled umbrella and carpet bag.
Meanwhile, in the present day, Walt connives and cajoles to bring his reluctant author to heel. Nothing seems to work: Travers is absolutely shrill in her disapproval of a pretty, singing, dancing and fanciful Mary Poppins and the songwriting Sherman brothers can’t seem to compose anything that even comes near to winning her tolerance, let alone consent.

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It goes without saying that a compromise is reached, but I’ll leave it to you to see the movie itself and learn how.
Disney is not known for works of deep melodrama and those thinking that this is a family picture will be distressed by some of the movie’s action and dialogue.  I would suggest that children younger than 14 should stick with the Disney musical. This one’s more for the parents.
Mind you, it IS a good film; Hanks does his best to submerge himself in the role of Walt Disney and although he doesn’t altogether look like him, he comes close enough that the screenplay works.
Thompson is drawn, fraught and spinsterish with an attitude so uptight she practically squeaks audibly whenever she moves, yet she manages to become a sympathetic character.

m mouse escorts pl travers into theatre

Paul Giamatti is an unexpected delight as her dedicated limo driver while she’s in L-A and, as noted above, Colin Farrell takes a role for which he is more than well-suited and makes the most of it.
And there’s more than a little irony when you consider that the same woman who gave the world “Nanny McFee” is also the one who gave us this neurotically obsessive authoress.

(4 out of 5 stars)

saving mr banks movie poster

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More of the Same

The current season is a virtual bonanza for anyone who cares to comment on the U-S Presidential Primary Election Season.

I rather suspect that one of the unanticipated drawbacks of political cartooning nowadays is the nagging suspicion that no matter how timely and outrageous you may try to be, by the time your work sees the light of day, something has already happened that has exceeded your most fanciful imagination.

With that in mind, let us try and feel a little sympathy for our stalwart commentator, Tom Tomorrow…

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Movie Review: “Hitchcock”

Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2012, with Michael Caine, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette, Danny Huston, Jessica Biel and James D’Arcy, 98 minutes, Rated PG-13 (Brief Adult Language, Themes and Situations)

Although I am not as young as I used to be, still I count myself lucky: I got to watch and see one of the most creative, distinctive, unique and commanding film directors of them all at the height of his powers: Alfred Hitchcock.
In a few days it will be the 36th anniversary of his death, a few months from now will be the 117th anniversary of his birth.  I feel confident that if the widely-acknowledged “Master of Suspense” were somehow still here, I know which one he would rather celebrate…
Sacha Gervasi’s film doesn’t require the viewer to have a formal background in the Hitchcock oeuvre, but a working knowledge of Sir Alfred’s filmography does enhance appreciation of the proceedings.
Hopkins vs Hitch
Profiles in filmmaking: (left) Michael Caine, (right) Alfred Hitchcock
Oscar winner Michael Caine, naturally-endowed with a Londoner’s accent, slips effortlessly into Hitchcock’s often-parodied laconic style of speaking. The makeup and costume departments obviously labored long and hard to recreate the signature profile and corpulent body with, it must be said, some success.
However, one never is able to quite shake the awareness that you’re watching Michael Caine, even if your ears tell you you’re hearing “Hitch.”
Insofar as that effort fails, it is the film’s greatest shortcoming, although younger audience members, not so familiar with Hitchcock’s iconic face, may fail to pick up on this discrepancy.
In any event, Caine does superbly in carrying the mood of the piece.
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The Hitchcocks: (left) in real life, (right) as portrayed by Caine and Mirren
Cast as his wife, screenwriter and lifelong support, Alma Reville, Helen Mirren turns in a portrayal that is precisely on target.
Scarlett Johansson, who seems to never waver in the quality of her performances, is actress Janet Leigh.
As the film opens, it is 1959, Hitchcock is riding high on the success of his most recent movie, “North by Northwest,” and, at 60 years of age, is casting about for his next project.
He’s read a book about a particularly gruesome murder in Wisconsin several years previously and he’s struggling to turn it into a screenplay.  Paramount Pictures, his studio, is leery about the project and even his wife, Alma, thinks the story needs a lot of work.
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Jessica Biel, Scarlett Johansson and James D’Arcy, as Vera Miles, Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins, respectively, recreate the scene in which Hitchcock swears his cast and crew to secrecy over the plot and screenplay of “Psycho”.  Hitch really did take this step, which was considered highly unusual at the time.  Today such non-disclosure agreements are a standard clause in most movie production contracts.
Alma has an apparent platonic friendship with another screenwriter, but could their joint writing sessions be … something more?  For his part, Hitch is busy obsessing over his latest “Hitchcock blonde”, in this case: Janet Leigh.  Is his obsession part of his creative process?
James D’Arcy plays Anthony Perkins, the closeted gay actor whose career is about to become forever associated with the role he is going to take on.
He is to play Norman Bates.
The movie Hitchcock is trying to get produced is called “Psycho”.

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Film lovers already know the ending, so the tension of the story needs to carry the interest.
The screenplay, chock full of nuggets of the usual Hitchcock Trivia, makes all the obligatory stops: his appreciation of fine wine, his insistence on using storyboards to plan every frame of the picture, his fondness for his dogs, his dependence on drivers since he has never learned to operate a car for himself, his near-legendary obsession with blonde actresses and so forth.
Psycho Theatre Warning Card
Knowing that word-of-mouth would promote his film when Paramount Pictures was reluctant to do so, Hitch took this step to drum up moviegoers’ interest.  It also tended to prevent the premature disclosure that the film’s ostensible star, Janet Leigh, dies barely 30 minutes after the movie gets started.  The tactic worked beautifully.
Hopkins’ Hitchcock is well-portrayed, but it must be said that Mirren, as Alma Reville, less burdened by widespread familiarity within the world of movie fans, has license to make more of her character.  And she does, helping drive the film’s tension when the story leaves the studio back lot and moves into the private world of the Hitchcocks as husband and wife.
But in the end, as the Hitchcocks themselves would tell you, it all comes down to the screenplay. Does it work?  Does it hold your interest?  Do you end up caring about these characters even when you KNOW how the story turns out?
The answer to all three questions is a resounding “Yes!”
“Hitchcock” is a movie that appeals to everyone, whether they worship the Master of Suspense, have only a casual familiarity with his films, or even have never seen the man’s films at all.
Enthusiastically recommended!  (4.75 out of 5 stars)

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Is It Tomorrow Yet?

Okay, here’s the latest from our favorite editorial cartoonist!…

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There’s at least one book review and one movie review in the works!  I hope to post at least one of those soon!  In the meantime, thanks so very much for visiting this humble blog!

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