Saturday, January 31, 2009

Cut off the Facebook feed? What do you think?

Not long after I started this blog, a colleague and friend suggested that I set it up to feed onto the Notes of my Facebook page. After a little dallying, I did this. I believe everything I've posted this last month has gone there.

I'm now caught in a dilemma of too much success. Most people are now reading my posts via Facebook, rather than clicking over to the blog.

To those veteran Webmeisters out there, the problem is obvious -- these count as page views for Facebook (which hardly needs them) and not on It's in my best interests, professionally and financially, to get the most views here, since clicks are king on the Web. (I've been afraid to click on the Google Ads link to see how many actual page views this site has seen recently, since I'm guessing I'll find it depressing).

What's your opinion? Should I cut off the Facebook feed? Or find some other way to convince visitors to swing by here first? Another option I've thought of is to sample the opening paragraph or two of new posts on Facebook, with a link to come here to read the rest. But I'm not exactly sure how to do that, other than manually.


Friday, January 30, 2009

Review: "New in Town"

“New in Town” is a romantic comedy starring RenĂ©e Zellweger that seems parceled together from a host of other movies, and yet it works. It’s a sweet, funny chick flick without an ironic bone in its body. It may not hold many surprises, but it’s an entertaining trip as we connect the inevitable dots.

Zellweger plays a corporate climber assigned to oversee massive layoffs at a remote Minnesota dairy plant. Absolutely everyone in New Ulm (“The Most German Town in the USA”) talks like Police Chief Marge Gunderson from “Fargo,” and is just as nice and neighborly and cloying as can be. There’s a hunky fireman for her to butt heads with and then fall for, and the appropriate cockles are warmed as she realizes that small-town folk are just plain better than city slickers.

A lot going on there. You’ve got the accents and setting from “Fargo,” the band of colorful yokels from “Doc Hollywood” who seem ridiculous and then wonderful, and the love/hate relationship from … well, just about every romcom ever made.

There’s also a taste of the neurotic heroine of “Bridget Jones,” which isn’t surprising since Zellwegger was Bridget Jones, and director Jonas Elmer’s most notable credit is 2005’s “Nynne,” which the Internet Movie Database describes as “the Danish ‘Bridget Jones.’” I also detected some of the sensibility of “Sweet Home Alabama,” which was penned by co-screenwriter C. Jay Cox (Ken Rance is the other half of the team).

But the movie “New in Town” most reminded me of was “Other People’s Money,” a little-remembered dark comedy from 1991 that also arrived during a bad economic downturn. This new film strikes a timely chord with its talk of layoffs and liquidations and the greedy golems who sit in corporate headquarters and view the livelihoods of their far-flung employees as line items waiting to be written off.

When Lucy Hill (Zellwegger) first meets the factory workers at Munck Foods and starts talking about innovation and synergy and a whole bunch of other buzzword blather, and the crotchety old foreman (the inestimable J.K. Simmons) interrupts and says they just want to know how many of them are going to lose their jobs, it’s a cheer-out-loud moment.

Of course, Lucy soon drops her tough-girl pose. At first put off by the nosy way her secretary (Siobhan Fallon) ingratiates herself into Lucy’s personal life, before long she’s lapping up the friendly vibes like the tapioca the secretary cooks by the bucketful.

For a romantic comedy, the romance is probably the least successful thing about the movie. Zellweger and Harry Connick Jr. share a few nice scenes together, like the one where he takes her hunting and she gets stuck in her overalls trying to pee and inadvertently pulls a Dick Cheney on her would-be beaux. But these bits end up being less than the sum of their parts, so her fateful decision at the end lacks emotional weight.

“New in Town” may not win any awards for originality. But even if it’s not very new, it milks the familiar routines like an old, expert hand.

Three stars out of four

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Reeling backward: "The Godfather, Part II"

A great number of film critics and scholars regard the sequel to "The Godfather" as being superior to the original. I am not among them.

The sequel, which came out in 1974 -- a mere two years after the original -- won more Oscars than its predecessor, including Best Picture for both films. It follows the saga of mob boss Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in 1959 while interspersing the story with flashbacks of his father Vito's arrival in America in 1901 and his rise as a crime lord in 1917-1918.

Each film clocks in at around 200 minutes, making for a pretty long sit. "Part II's" plot unfolds at a much more leisurely pace, but I never find it boring. Alas, my lovely bride did not feel the same way, dozing through long stretches of a recent viewing.

My own take on seeing the movie for probably the 8th or 9th time is that the 1959 sections really sing, while the Vito Corleone stuff is actually a bit draggy. It's amazing to me that Robert De Niro won an Oscar for this role, which I don't consider anywhere near his best performances like "Raging Bull" or "Goodfellas."

It's also interesting that De Niro, who took over the part from Marlon Brando in the first movie (Brando being much too old to play a 25-year-old Vito), makes no attempt whatsoever to take any cues from Brando's portrayal of the character. There's none of the theatrical bombasity or the carefully veiled menace of Brando. Granted, this was supposed to be Vito 30 years earlier, and few men behave in middle age as they did as a young man (and woe to those who do). But I think if you showed each movie to separate audiences who hadn't seen them and told them the two actors were playing the same character, they'd be astonished.

And as much as I think the 1959 sequences with Michael are the strongest part of the movie, they don't anywhere near match the grandiosity of the original. This has mostly to do with the antagonists -- the rival Mafia figures who oppose the Corleone family. They're just not that frightening, or even interesting, as the group from the first movie. The triad of Barzini, Tattaglia and especially Virgil "The Turk" Sollazzo made for worthy adversaries. Plus Sterling Hayden as the imperial police captain. Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) is the chief heavy in "Part II," and is so low-key that even his threats seem more like whining.

"Part II" is much more a character study than the original, which is probably why critics like it more. The exploration of the disintegration of Michael's persona has generated a lot of long articles in film periodicals that nobody reads. It's still a terrific movie, but there's a reason "The Godfather Part II" did not hold up with audiences over time. When you say "The Godfather," everyone thinks of Brando.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Will "Slumdog" protests affect Oscar votes?

They're burning Danny Boyle in effigy.

Initial reaction in India to "Slumdog Millionaire" was mixed, and has since turned sour. Way sour. Cinemas have been looted and vandalized, and a story from an international news service quoted one of the protest leaders as promising to burn director Boyle in effigy in 56 slums. (Why 56 and not, say, 62 is beyond me.)

This scrappy little movie has been the feel-good hit during the awards season, and had been seen as the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture at the Oscars on Feb 22 (although I've had my doubts about mainstream Hollywood lauding a largely international cast and crew). Will these protests affect how Academy voters choose?

My first instinct is no. The deadline for ballots is actually very soon, so the news may not have filtered out to all the Academy voters, whose average age is something like 74. But if the protests turn violent or become widespread, it could cost "Slumdog" votes.

Most of the anger over the movie seems to rest on applying the word "dog" to children in the poorer Muslim sections of India. Dogs, of course, are considered dirty creatures in much of the Arab and Muslim world.

But within the context of the movie, the term is clearly used in a derogatory way, so it's not like Boyle and the other filmmakers are celebrating the term. It would be like children of unwed parents getting riled up about the title of Quentin Tarantino's forthcoming movie, "Inglorious Bastards."

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

New review this week: "New in Town"

This week I'll be reviewing "New in Town," the new romcom starring Renee Zellwegger and Harry Connick Jr.

Aside: I had a chance to meet Harry Connick Jr. in college and missed it. One of my roomates my senior year at NYU went to high school with him (or maybe his brother did, I forget) and Connick was in town for a concert. Apparently he stopped by our dorm apartment and hung out a while. I was probably at the library, studying -- I was quite the grind my school years. Of course, if you had 1,300 pages of assigned reading per week (true -- I counted) you'd be a grind, too.

Monday, January 26, 2009

All the stars in heaven ... and film criticism

Interesting article in the Wall Street Journal last week in which the majority of movie critics lament the fact that they have to assign stars to their reviews:

I particularly love the quote from the New York Times editor, which is so quintessentially Timesian (read: find large wooden board, insert in rectum forcibly): "We don't seek to reduce our arguments about a particular piece of art to a number, or letter grade, or golden spatulas, or whatever."

Roger Ebert often assails the necessity of reducing reviews down to stars, and yet he seems OK with the even more reductionist method of thumb up/thumbs down, which made him rich and famous. He and Gene Siskel even went so far as to copyright the thumbs, and when Ebert and Disney parted ways over his TV show, he refused to allow the new guys to use the thumbs.

I am apparently in the small percentage of critics who approves of stars, or letters, or whatever grading system they come up with.

The argument critics use against ratings is: People will just look at the rating and not read the review. Well, tough toodles and welcome to the real world. Some people aren't going to read the whole review no matter how great the critic is. But they want a quick guide to help them with their movie-going. This way, the critic is still providing a service to the time-stretched reader.

Do I like the idea of someone skipping the review? Hell, no. But I look at it this way -- if they're looking at the stars or whatever, chances are they'll probably glance at the headline. And if they're interested, maybe they'll take the time to read at least some of the review. Over time, there is the potential to turn this non-reader into a reader. But if there's no stars for him or her to refer to, they'll just skip the movie section entirely, and there's no chance of them ever becoming an avid film criticism consumer.

Beyond that, I think stars are a good way of pinning a critic down. Too many times I've read a review from a big-paper critic that doesn't do stars, and it reads like a pan. Then, when the movie becomes a hit, you'll see them in another forum claiming that although they said some nasty things about it, the "thrust" of their review was actually positive. The same happens in reverse: A critic writes a seemingly positive review, then turns more dour when the weight of his colleagues aligns against him.

Star ratings keep a critic honest -- or, at least, prevent any ex post facto fudging.

I often agonize over what star rating to give a movie -- particularly deciding between a 2 star and a 2.5 star review. In my mind, a 2-star movie is "average, marginal thumbs down" and 2.5 star is "average, marginal thumbs up." It's so tough when watching a movie you're ambivalent about to decide if you'd recommend it to friends. Having a rating system helps me flesh out my own thoughts, and prevents me from wallowing in the quagmire of indecisiveness.

Historically, I'm fairly stingy with stars. I only gave out one four-star rating in 2008: To "Wall-E." "Slumdog Millionaire" was very close, and in retrospect probably should have been given four stars. But I admit I'm reticent to give out the highest rating, because to me when I do that I'm saying: "This is a classic. Thirty years from now, people will still be watching this movie with awe. This is another 'Casablanca,' 'Godfather' or 'Return of the King.'"

Friday, January 23, 2009

Review: "The Wrestler"

Mickey Rourke has come a long way – mostly in the wrong direction.

Twenty-five years ago, it seemed like he was headed for the very top echelon of leading male actors. Instead, he made a bunch of forgettable movies, flirted with a boxing career, and earned the sort of reputation around Hollywood that causes phones to stop ringing.

In “The Wrestler,” his character Randy “The Ram” Robinson finds himself in much the same career straits. A top wrestling star of the ‘80s, he’s so strapped for cash that he’s been locked out of his single-wide in a crummy New Jersey trailer park. He sleeps in an ancient rusted-out van, and his family won’t speak to him. He’s still working, if you can call throwing a few body slams in a VFW hall in front of a couple dozen aging fans a career.

Why do Randy, and Mickey, keep doing what they’re doing, long past their prime and for a diminishing amount of appreciation? Because they’re good at it, because they enjoy the thrill of pleasing an audience, and because despite all the pain it brings them, it’s all they know how to do.

Rourke is nearly unrecognizable as The Ram. Part of it is the road the actor has taken – his face has been repeatedly altered by plastic surgery (though Rourke has denied this) to the point of becoming an indistinct lump of fleshy scars. The other changes are intentional for the role: his body buffed and tanned into a cartoonish caricature of manhood, a waist-length braid of bleached-out hair cascading down his back.

It’s the sort of look that grabs attention in the ring, but isn’t very practical on your day job working behind the deli counter at a grocery store. The rest of Randy’s time is spent hanging out at the local strip club, talking to a stripper named Cassidy (Marissa Tomei) whom he’s sweet on. Cassidy puts him off none too gently, failing to see that the has-been wrestler is a harbinger of her own predicament.

Randy’s attempts to reconcile with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) are ham-handed but earnest, buying her second-hand clothes and hanging out on her doorstep like a wayward puppy.

Wrestling is a fake sport, but the key to the movie’s success is that director Darren Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel treat it respectfully. To them, it’s just another profession, one framed by ridiculous theatrics, yes, but with its own codes and rules. These men in their spandex have their own sense of honor.

Witness the way the performers confer before their staged bouts, laying out their physical weaknesses and preferred moves. When another older wrestler suggests using a staple gun and barbed wire during their act, Randy doesn’t blanche. When they return, the ring canvas now soaked in their blood, the younger wrestlers in the locker room cheer. In this community, flesh torn in the pursuit of entertainment is the ultimate badge of professionalism.

Even when Randy’s health fails and the doctors tell him to give up wrestling, he can’t stay out long. Despite the blood and the scars, Randy knows that “the only time I get hurt is out there,” outside the ring.

Good thing that Mickey Rourke decided to go to the mat and risk getting knocked around again. “The Wrestler” is more than a comeback; it’s an actor’s redemption.

3.5 stars out of four

Review: "Inkheart"

Seventeen years ago I saw a movie called “School Ties” that starred a kid named Brendan Fraser. It was the first time I’d ever seen an actor for the first time and immediately said to myself, “That guy is going to be a star.” (To boot, “School Ties” also featured Chris O’Donnell, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.)

And Fraser remains a star today, if a low-key one – he starred in two $100 million-grossing movies in 2008.

Fraser headlines in the new movie “Inkheart,” but the star of tomorrow it heralds is Eliza Hope Bennett, who plays his daughter. Bennett glides onto the screen with an astonishing confidence and an unwavering gaze. She’s a cutie, of course, with a girlish winsomeness that promises to bloom into womanly beauty. She also has a wonderfully rich, resonant voice for such a youngster (she’s 16), and even sings a song on the movie’s soundtrack.

But what’s more, Bennett has that indescribable “it” factor that, like a Julia Roberts or Will Smith, makes it hard for an audience to tear their eyes off her.

Bennett and Fraser play Meggie and Mortimer Folchart, a father/daughter team who circle the globe looking for an obscure book titled “Inkheart.” Dad is circumspect why this long crusade, and even more mysterious about Meggie’s long-absent mother. Just when Mort finds a battered copy, a strange figure named Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) turns up with strange demands about Mort using the book to send him back home.

You see, Mort is a silvertongue, a person with the magical ability to summon things straight out of a book simply by reading them aloud. Years ago, while reading to a young Meggie, Mort brought Dustfinger, a fire juggler and trickster, out of the Inkheart book, and he’s been aching to get back to his family ever since.

Unfortunately, Mort also called forth Capricorn (Andy Serkis), the villain of the story. What’s more, there’s a price to be paid whenever a silvertongue reads aloud: For every thing summoned, something gets sent into the world of the book. Mort’s wife was sucked away that fateful night, and he’s been looking for a copy ever since so he can try to bring her back.

Capricorn’s been busy, however. He’s set himself up in a European castle, and used another silvertongue to call forth an army of henchmen, as well as a zoo of magical creatures. (Anyone who seriously displeases him is sent to “the ticking crocodile.”) Unfortunately, because this silvertongue is a stutterer, the people he summons come out malformed, with words spread haphazardly across their faces.

It’s a wonderfully inventive universe based on the novel by Cornelia Funke, although the metaphysical implications can you send you reeling – especially after the Inkheart author himself is brought in as a character (Jim Broadbent) and starts tinkering with his story.

This movie, directed by Iain Softley from a script by David Lindsay-Abaire, is aimed at a preteen audience with its diet of bloodless action and fantasy story elements culled from popular fiction, like Rapunzel and Toto from “The Wizard of Oz.” It’s breezy fun, although Softley’s repeated use of Nazi imagery for Capricorn’s black-jacketed thugs is distracting.

“Inkheart” is an above-average children’s adventure film, and will suitably entertain families but probably not linger long in memory. Its more likely legacy is to be remembered as the movie in which we first saw Eliza Hope Bennett. This first chapter of her career is full of promise.

Three stars out of four

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Oscar reax

Is there anyone out there who really thinks that "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is hands-down the best movie of the year? Other than people who got a paycheck from it, that is?

I mean, 13 nominations? That's "Return of the King" numbers. Since Oscar members tend to vote in packs, the sheer number of nominations is indicative of their ardor for a particular film. Based on this morning's nominations just announced a little while ago, "Benjamin" is king of the mountain.

I was glad to see "Slumdog Millionaire" get 10 nominations. I put it number two on my Top 10 list, and it's certainly the most original among the big contenders.

Other observations:

Kate Winslet, widely expected to receive two acting nominations, lead for "Revolutionary Road" and supporting for "The Reader," was shut out for "Road" and nominated for leading role in "The Reader." Studios push actors for particular categories, but voters are free to choose whomever they wish. Today's results indicates a lack of regard for "Revolutionary Road" -- well placed in my opinion. And I would argue that her job in "Reader" is also a leading role. Does this make her a favorite to win the statuette?

I was really happy to see Frank Langella get an acting nomination for "Frost/Nixon," since I think his performance makes that movie. Ditto for Melissa Leo in the little-seen "Frozen River," which I put as the best performance by an actress in 2008. (Bully for Courtney Hunt for nabbing an original screenplay nod.)

The big surprise was Richard Jenkins, a largely obscure but extremely well-respected character actor, getting an acting nod for "The Visitor."

I was neither surprised or disappointed that "The Dark Knight" was shut out of the major categories except for Heath Ledger's written-in-stone nomination for supporting actor. It got eight nominations total, but in technical categories except for Ledger's. Even though it was a monstrous box office hit and was reviewed very well and a favorite of the fanboys, I think in the months since its release Academy voters had a chance to look at it again and realized what a mess the plot is, particularly the last half. Face it: it goes on a half-hour too long, and should have ended with Harvey Dent's maiming.

I'm ecstatic that "The Reader" had such a great showing, with surprise nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. I had it number 3 on my list, so I'm hopeful this great showing will spur more people to go see it. It got five nominations in all.

I was glad to see Robert Downey Jr. get a supporting nod for his quirky and brave performance in blackface in "Tropic Thunder," although not for the obvious reasons. I don't think it's particularly deserved, nor was I big fan of that over-praised movie, but it's just all too rare for comedies to be given their due by the Oscar folks.

Also glad to see Angelina Jolie nominated for the largely missed "Changeling." For once she's not playing the brave, bold woman, and it pays off.

Watch for the envelopes to be opened Feb. 22. I'll be live-blogging the event that night, so tune in.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

About those funky characters in some posts...

... I think I've got 'em licked. I went back and updated two recent posts that were showing screwy characters.

Apparently there's some conflict between MicroSoft Word and html language. Since I was cut-and-pasting some reviews straight from Word, it looked funky on some computers. It looked fine on mine, but on Jean's it was all loopy. And the feed to Facebook was also coming up weird.

Anyway, I've found (with Jean's help) a workaround solution. Please let me know if you still see funky-looking posts.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Reeling backward: "Heaven Can Wait"

I'm starting a new occasional series I'm calling "Reeling Backward" in which I look at older movies I'm seeing for the first time, or seeing again after a long hiatus.

I saw "Heaven Can Wait" in the theaters when I was 8 or 9 years old. It's curious to think about the things we remember 30 years later of a movie we saw once. My major impressions of this remake co-written, co-directed and starring Warren Beatty had to do with the grey warm-up suit and alto saxophone he has during his death scenes. I don't why it's stuck with me -- maybe the colorless outfit denoting his lack of substance outside of the live world, with that golden instrument as a repository of his personality. Whatever.

It's not a great movie, or even a particularly good one. Beatty plays Joe Pendleton, a back-up quarterback for the LA Rams who dies just before he's being given a shot to lead the team to the Super Bowl. Except he doesn't really die; an overeager celestial worker plucks him up before his time. To set things right, the unctuous manager, played by James Mason, puts Joe in the body of a rich industrialist, Leo Farnsworth. Farnsworth's wife and scheming secretary, having failed to poison him, set about other methods of assassination. Meanwhile, Fransworth/Joe buys the Rams so he can give himself the QB position, and falls in love with an Irish schoolteacher who came to protest a refinery he was going to build near her home.

Now, anyone who knows me and my film criticism knows that I tend to get hung up on illogical or unreasonable contortions of the plot. The filmmakers want to move the story from point A to point Z, and are often willing to skip a lot of steps if it suits them. That drives me bongo, especially when point H is in direct contradiction to point S.

For "Heaven," three things stuck out like a sore thumb to me:

As Leo, Beatty ignores the attempts on his life by his wife and secretary, even though he knows they poisoned him. (Only James Mason's intervention to stick him in Farnsworth's body presents him from dying.) They also rig the ceiling above his bed to fall on him. And yet he does nothing. Does it not occur to Joe, once he's decided he wants to stick around in Farnsworth's body, that he better head this little problem off at the pass? He doesn't, and they eventually succeed in offing him.

The starting quarterback for the Rams, Tom Jarrett, plays excellently until Farnsworth/Joe comes along, and yet nobody makes a stink about him being replaced by the rich guy who buys the team, and right before the Super Bowl, too. After some initial hostility, the players embrace Farnsworth/Joe as their new QB, and nobody says boo about the guy who actually led the team to the big game. This is not how real life works. Everybody, from the team to sportswriters to fans, would hate Farnsworth's guts for usurping the role of a guy who led the team.

Finally, and most glaringly, is the final body switcheroo. After Farnsworth is offed, Mason puts Joe's spirit into that of Tom Jarrett, who's hurt on a play. Whenever Joe asks the Mason character why someone has to die, he replies cryptically that "it's his time." And yet, as Mason is doing his ghostly fade-out thing, he instructs Joe that he will not remember anything about his former life, and will have the memories and awareness of Tom Jarrett. If that's so, then isn't Tom Jarrett the one who actually lives, and Joe is the one whose time is up? Doesn't Joe really die, and Tom lives?

It sounds like celestial bureaucracy at work to me.

Monday, January 19, 2009

New reviews this week: "Inkheart" and "The Wrestler"

The new review this week will be "Inkheart" and probably "The Wrestler," too. Look for them to be posted on late Thursday or early Friday.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Review: "Bride Wars"

Catching up with a flick that came out a couple of Fridays ago. I had a chance to see it early and post a review on opening day, but that was in the middle of my gout bout.

"Bride Wars" is the sort of movie that seeing the preview pretty much gives you a two-minute version of the whole movie. Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson play friends since childhood who have always dreamed of getting married in June at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Lo and behold, they both get engaged at the same time, but a screw-up by the world's most powerful wedding planner (Candice Bergen, who seems consigned to these sorts of brittle old battle axe roles now) leads to them being booked on the same day. Neither will budge their dream wedding date, so it's all-out war where these BFFs turn into bridezillas from hell.

If you've seen the preview, then you already know the terrible tortures they inflict on each other in order to convince the other to blink. Rich treats are sent to one's office to make her pork up so much she can't fit into her Vera Wang dress. A sabotaged tanning booth turns Hathaway into a carrot-colored disaster. Hudson's hair gets turned blue. And so on.

Of course, in the process both terribly miss their close friend, even as they resort to the nastiest of tactics, and re-examine their relationships with their grooms-to-be -- remember them? The movie barely does.

As someone who recently went through this process himself, I have many thoughts on over-indulgent weddings. The first is that anyone who would spend six figures on a wedding has entirely too much money, and needs to be smacked. The second is that while it's OK for a woman to dream about her wedding day, obsessively planning it for years is psychotic. Anybody who would run into their beloved's office and loudly demand to be married, as Hudson character's does, deserves to be alone forever.

Finally, the obvious solution of a double wedding is presented and then pitched overboard without any reasonable justification -- other than the filmmakers' need for this bride war to happen, logic be damned.

Whenever people ask me how a male critic can review a chick flick, I respond that I have no objection to good chick flicks. "Bride Wars" is not one of them.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Review: "Paul Blart: Mall Cop"

Does anybody really expect much out of a movie with a title like "Paul Blart: Mall Cop"?

Like its low-rent, fourth-tier, amateur hour hero, "Paul Blart" the movie is the underdog that deserves its lowly status. It's a star vehicle for TV comedian Kevin James, and its very existence means that Larry the Cable Guy's film career still has legs. Somewhere, Pauly Shore is watching this and thinking, "Well, if that guy can get his own movie ..."

And yet, it's hard to hold any serious hard feelings against James, or this movie. It's clearly intended for preteen kids who will respond to the abundance of facial mugging and pratfalls. Parents, and any unsuspecting unattached adults, will just have to suffer through.

James, with a body like a high school lineman gone to pot, does manage a few grace notes here and there as he's bouncing off minivans, splatting into locked glass doors or squirming through air ducts. He spends a great deal of the movie riding one of those Segway movers, and his ability to dodge and weave and swerve with that thing is sort of uncanny.

I was disappointed that James, who co-wrote the movie with his "King of Queens" co-star Nick Bakay, never jumped on the joke with the most potential: Why is it exactly that mall security guards ride around on Segways instead of just walking? Their top speed is no better than a person going at a medium trot, so it's not like they serve some sort of legitimate security reason. Their only purpose seems to be preventing people from getting some much-needed exercise.

Given the set-up, the movie pretty much writes itself. Blart is overdedicated to his job, even inventing oaths and creeds that mystify his fellow guards, who want to sneak behind a camera monitor and zone out. He's sweet on the new girl at the wig kiosk (Jayma Mays), in a role so underwritten most of her dialogue is delivered via text message.

Then a gang of skanky skateboard punks and parkour acrobats invade the mall, take everyone hostage including wig girl, and it's up to Paul to do a "Die Hard," even though everybody thinks he's a joke.

The only real flashes of originality are the presence of Blart's mother and daughter, who sign him up for a Web dating service with predictable results, and making the character a hypoglycemic.

The idea of a hero who has to stop every few minutes to pound some Pixy Stix or he'll go into a torpor is worth a few chuckles ... a very few. Most of the time, "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" is just punching the clock.

1.5 stars out of four

Review: "Defiance"

It’s a credit to Daniel Craig’s skills as an actor that we never once think of James Bond while watching the World War II drama “Defiance.”

As Tuvia Bielski, the leader of a group of renegade Jews who fled from and fought the Nazis in what today is Belarus, Craig is defiant but not cocky. There’s no trace of the brutally cold and efficient British super agent he’s portrayed in two Bond films.

With the exception of Sean Connery, none of the actors who portrayed James Bond had much of a career once their days behind a Walther PPK ended. So it’s pleasing to know that top-notch war dramas and other fare like this still lie in front of Craig, no matter how long his run as Bond.

“Defiance” is one of those “based on a true story” movie, which means the larger historical fact is accepted, but many of the details are up for debate.
In a brief Google search about the Bielski Partisans, I learn that more than 1,000 Jews built a fairly substantial settlement deep in the forests of Belarus, including a school, hospital and even a jail. They had a herd of cows to keep them fed. That’s a lot more comfy than the crude log shacks shown in the movie, with Tuvia’s people subsisting at barely above starvation level, and nearly freezing to death in the winter.

And who knows if Tuvia and his brother Zus were really rivals, a la Cain and Abel, for control of the group? But that’s the central conflict of the film, and the tension between Craig and Liev Schreiber, as Zus, is compelling.

Zus is the headstrong brother who follows the Old Testament: “Blood for blood.” He wants to take the fight to the Germans, and summarily execute any collaborators who turned Jews over to the Nazis.

But Tuvia’s goal is merely to survive, and save as many Jewish lives as he can. With the help of a few intellectual types, he wants to build a semblance of a community, even as the Germans vie for their extinction. “We may be hunted like animals, but we will not behave like animals.”

“Defiance” is directed by Edward Zwick (“Glory,” “The Last Samurai”) who co-wrote the script with Clayton Frohman based on the book by Nechama Tec. Zwick’s a master at bringing historical dramas to full-blooded life, and does so again here.

What makes Tuvia interesting is that he’s far from perfect. He makes bad judgment calls, lets a rogue element within the community go too far for too long, and overlooks some despicable behavior. (At one point, a captured German soldier is pummeled to death by a revengeful mob.) During one critical battle, he completely freezes, and it’s up to his younger brother Asael (Jamie Bell) to carry the day.

Could you imagine James Bond choking up, trembling and indecisive while troops march down on his flock? But Craig’s looking to build a character, not a star persona based on Bond. It’s one of many reasons why “Defiance” stands tall.

3.5 stars out of four

Friday, January 16, 2009

Review: "Hotel for Dogs"

At no point during “Hotel for Dogs” did they resort to playing “Who Let the Dogs Out,” so right off the bat it exceeded my expectations.

This movie is from the Nickelodeon Channel people, and is essentially a big-budget version of one of their broadcasts decked out with stars like Don Cheadle, Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon. It’s not terribly ambitious – scads of cute canines and life-lesson moments for kids are the order of the day – but it’s passable family entertainment, and manages not to be too annoying for older jaded people, like 12-year-olds.

Emma Roberts (daughter of Eric, niece of Julia) and Jake T. Austin play Andi and Bruce, orphaned siblings who are stuck with awful foster parents (Kudrow and Dillon) who lock the pantry to keep them from eating the good food, and spend all their time rehearsing the world’ worst rock duo act. The siblings’ only comfort is Friday, their scrappy dog who they keep hidden on the sly.

Bruce is a mechanical whiz who whips up Rube Goldberg gadgets to help with dog care, like a mechanized elevator so he can slip in their bedroom window. Andi, 16 and self-conscious, wants to keep the siblings from being split up, and is helped by an obliging social worker (Cheadle) who looks out for them when they get into scrapes with the law.

One day Friday wanders into the abandoned Hotel Francis Duke, a golden age relic left to rot. Of course, all the furniture and clothing and other stuff is still lying around, and soon they’ve whipped up a cool lair for their pooch – and two others already living there.

With the help of the local pet shop boy (Johnny Simmons), they’re soon rounding up every stray dog in the neighborhood. The pooches are ensconced in high doggie comfort, from automatic feeders to a simulator that makes the dogs think they’re riding in a car with their head out the window. The fire hydrant that washes itself after every bit of doggie business is pure genius; if they ever market this device for the home, I’m buying.

The dog cast is an enjoyable lot with distinctive personalities. There’s one who chews stuff, a big bloke who howls when he’s scared, and an ugly little runt who’s a hit with the bitches (hey editors, back off, it’s cool, you can print it in this context). Although for strays, they all seem to be pricey purebreds like Jack Russell Terriers and Doberman Pinschers.

The heavies in the movie are the dog catchers, who are jack-booted jerkwaters that enjoy locking up dogs. Most of them are played by vaguely recognizable actors; for those who enjoy indulging in such games, I spotted the nunchucks guy from “Dreamscape,” Samir, destroyer of printers, from “Office Space” and the next-door neighbor from “Revolutionary Road.”

“Hotel for Dogs” isn’t a great family flick, but at least parents won’t feel like checking out before kiddies have wallowed in every single poop joke.

Two stars out of four

Thursday, January 15, 2009

New reviews this week: "Defiance," "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" and "Hotel for Dogs"

I decided I need to do a better job of broadcasting what reviews of new movies visitors to this blog can expect to see every week. So sometime early in the week, I'll make a post letting you know what's on tap. That way you can head here first when you want to plan your weekend of movie-going.

This week we'll have "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," "Defiance" and "Hotel for Dogs." The first two are already up, and can be found in the list of links of published material on the top left side of the blog page. "Hotel" will have its own post right here.

It had been my policy to only give links to the published stuff, but I'd love some feedback. Would visitors like for me to make a post for every review right in the blog?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Comics commentary

In a recent post I seemed to deride the comics section of the daily newspaper, which was not my intent. I'm a big comics fan. In fact, in some ways I think the funnies are one of the most critical parts of a newspaper, since it's the entry point for many young readers. I started reading the comics before I could even read words. Later I read them entirely, and branched out to the features section surrounding them. Then I decided this front page thing is worth a look. By the time I was in college, I read the whole newspaper every day.

Kids who read comics grow up to be adults who read newspapers ... or, at least, newspaper web sites.

My all-time favorites are "Calvin and Hobbes" and "Bloom County." I was very sad to see them retire. For Christmas, my wife gave me framed copies of the final strip from each comic, which I'd been saving for years.

There are a lot of great strips out today: "Jump Start," "Pickles," "Rose Is Rose," "Zits," "Baby Blues" among them. Of the current crop, I would say "Pearls Before Swine" is my favorite. The artist is really mixing things up with the format, breaking the fourth wall (between the reader and the comic by being self-referential) and even dissing other cartoons.

There used to be a gentlemanly agreement amongst comic artists not to use characters or stories from another strip, and on the rare occasion that they did so, to put a humble "With apologies to so-and-so" note at the bottom. Not anymore. A lot of the newer, edgier strips seem eager to kiss off the older strips -- and I think that's great.

If I was editing a comics page, my first order of business would be to retire all the dead artists. By that, I mean I would get rid of "Peanuts," which has been running in repeats for a decade now after Charles Schulz' death. In addition, I would discontinue any strip that was taken over after the original artist's death or retirement. An astonishing number of the mainstay comics fall into this latter category -- everything from "Hagar the Horrible" to "Brenda Starr." I think "Blondie" has virtually become a generational project, like a widow whose husbands keep dying off.

My reasons for taking the ax to such dearly beloved strips is simple. They may have been great once, but now it's time to step aside and give a newer strip a shot. I loved "Peanuts" like everyone else -- I literally grew up with it. But imagine if 60 years ago Charles Schulz couldn't get his comic published because a bunch of tired old strips were being recycled year after year. It's time to give the young 'uns their shot.

The quality of a strip can rise and fall over time. A few years ago I served on the comics advisory panel at the Star, and I fought to include "Get Fuzzy," which I thought was a groundbreaking strip. Now I think it's meandered in recent times, content to be weird for its own sake rather than funny. I didn't think much of "Candorville" when it debuted, but the artist's style and voice have evolved. "Luann" used to be a fairly straightforward teen-joke strip, but has added some longer-form storytelling with great success.

One comic strip I'll be watching in the coming years is "Doonesbury." Garry Trudeau's a master satirist, but he seems willing to only turn his sharpest wit against those with whom he disagrees politically. If you consider the long history of the strip, he focuses almost exclusively on politics, or stories that touch on political issues like homelessness, when there's a Republican administration in the White House. During Democratic regimes, Trudeau falls mostly silent and concentrates on story arcs of his central characters' lives. Consider that "Doonesbury" hardly did any jokes about President Clinton, despite some pretty glaring opportunities.

Perhaps it's no coincidence, then, that "Doonesbury" is at its best when there's a GOP president.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Whither Oscar?

I, as a rule, do not pay very much attention to the Golden Globe Awards. They are to the Academy Awards as arena football is to the NFL -- third-tier contenders, derided deservingly for their lightweight status.

Still, the huge wins yesterday by "Slumdog Millionaire" could portend for this year's Oscars, the nominations for which will be announced this Sunday. The GGs may be nothing more than a popularity contest of Hollywood insiders, but, well, those same Hollywood insiders are the ones who vote for the Oscars.

"Slumdog" would be a very multicultural choice for a Best Picture, as it has an amazingly diverse pedigree: Irish director and screenwriter with a mostly Indian cast and crew, but with a large American pop culture influence. Somehow, I can't see the septuagenarian Academy voters jumping over themselves to give this movie the top award.

Movies like "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Milk" and "Frost/Nixon" have classic Oscar pedigrees -- big, serious dramas with stars and big-name directors.

There's been a lot of hype about "Wall-E" getting a Best Picture nod on top of one in the animated film category. Anyone who's read my Top 10 List knows that I would heartily support such a move.

But again, I don't see it happening -- only one animated movie, "Beauty and the Beast," has ever been nominated for Best Picture, and since they created the animated film category, it has come to be seen as the proper setting to recognize quality cartoons. It's the same reason why foreign language or documentary films rarely get a Best Picture nomination -- they've already got "their" award.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


I've finally seen all the big contenders. "Frost/Nixon" was the only Oscar hopeful that I was not able to see in advance, and we rectified it with an afternoon screening at AMC Castleton.

(A couple of quick asides before I get to the meat of the review. Why was this movie playing exclusively at Castleton instead of the Landmark "art cinema" a few miles to the west? By playing more mainstream fare and now letting some of the bigger indie films be booked elsewhere, Landmark is in danger of losing its reputation as the place to go for alternative cinema in Indianapolis. Also, AMC charged us the full admission price of $19 to attend a 4:20 p.m. show. Before long they'll be claiming that a 2:30 show is not a matinee.)

"Frost/Nixon" would not have made my Top 10 List had I seen it in time, but it would be very close -- let's call it No. 11. It's a solid political/media drama, nowhere in the class of heavyweights like "All the President's Men," but comfortably ensconced in that second tier of worthy efforts like "Primary Colors." It's not to be missed mainly because of Frank Langella's powerhouse performance as Richard Nixon.

Now, Langella looks and sounds absolutely nothing like Nixon. But in his mannerisms and the way he pitches his voice, we believe that he could be the 37th president, who resigned in disgrace after the Watergate cover-up. Langella has gotten to the essence of the man -- the grandeur, the venality, the puckish impudence against those who looked down on his humble origins. The actor has captured the man, in a way that I think Josh Brolin did not do with George W. Bush in "W." Watching that film, I never thought I was looking at anything other than Oliver Stone's own green-eyed interpretation of a president he despises. Frank Langella's Nixon carries a piece of the real man's spirit in his pocket.

Less successful as a performance and as a character is Michael Sheen as David Frost, the British talk show fop who somehow managed to be the one who gave Nixon the only real grilling he ever got over his crimes. Frost is depicted as a man who always had a genial, lightweight front put up before him. If that is true, they were too successful in portraying him, since we never get to see behind the facade. Oh, there are scenes of him pleading with an advertiser or network honcho and calling friends for cash to make the Nixon interview happen, but they center more on the process than the man. David Frost remains an affable, good-looking enigma, which is perhaps appropriate since he his role was to ask the questions, not exist as the answer.

The film, written by Peter Morgan and based on his play, is beautifully shot by Ron Howard, whose visual style has grown admirably from his early beginnings. The scenes of Nixon at his retirement estate at San Clemente are hauntingly evocative -- the fallen king doomed to dole out his remaining years in powerless exile, chewing the bitter root of his failings. It reminds me of some of the later scenes in "Citizen Kane," and the real man it was based on, William Randolph Hearst, stewing in his own overblown castle a few hundred miles north on the California coast.

The story reaches a crescendo with the actual tapings of the interview, which start out horribly for Frost, before he finally gets his licks in when discussing Watergate.

Nixon comes across more charismatic than you'd think, a man who ascended the ladder of power by sheer grit and ruthless determination, and was brought down by the vindictive things he did to get and retain power. In many ways, the qualities that got Richard Nixon to the White House determined that he would exit it so ignobly. "Frost/Nixon" is a compelling peek at his legacy, and his shame.

3.5 stars out of four

No little Lloyds -- for now

Jean and I read with great interest this morning the story on the front page of the Star by (our good friend) Shari Rudavsky about lots of Hoosier families putting off having kids because of the economic downturn.

You see, we are part of that trend. Since getting married in April, our plan was to wait until the end of the year till we got moved into one house, sold or rented the other, etc. before we started trying to have a child. Our last discussion was in the fall, and we agreed to start trying in earnest in 2009.

With the loss of my job, that's obviously off the map for the foreseeable future. I don't want to rely on the Indiana state unemployment office for diaper money.

As you can imagine, it's sort of crushing to put important life plans on hold because of external forces. But as Shari's article relates, many people believe it's the smart thing to do.

It's also dashed my dream of becoming a dad before I turned 40, which will happen in August. The men in my family tend to have children late, which probably explains why there are no great sportsmen in the clan. Guys in their 50s don't much feel like playing football with a rambunctious preteen.

I've joked with Jean that I think I'd make a great Mr. Mom. Ego-wise, I would have no problem being a stay-at-home Dad. Maybe I will ... someday.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Clint's having fun in "Gran Torino"

I can’t help feeling that Clint Eastwood is having a bit of fun with us in “Gran Torino.”

For years Hollywood had been chasing him to do another “Dirty Harry” movie, and the 78-year-old director/actor responded with jokes about the killer detective packing a walker along with his .44 Magnum. Well, “Gran Torino” by all appearances is as close to a Dirty Harry finale as we’re apt to see.

Call it “Dirty Harry on a Pension.”

Walt Kowalski, his character, is not actually a retired cop but worked the factory line at Ford for four decades, putting steering columns in cars like the gleaming green 1972 muscle car that lends the movie its name.

His wife has just died, he doesn’t much care for his middle-aged sons or their families, and he’s pretty much content to sit on his front stoop drinking Pabst Blue Ribbons from a cooler, polishing his beloved ride and keeping his little plot tidy.

Annoyances intrude from all sides. There’s the eager young priest (Christopher Carley) who won’t let up his attempts to crack Walt’s crusty exterior. And his Detroit neighborhood, once a haven for hard-working auto workers like himself, has grown run down and invaded by immigrant Hmong families.

Trouble brews amongst some Hmong gangsters hassling the fatherless family next door, and soon enough Harry … er, I mean, Walt is flashing some high-caliber hardware and laying down the law. He even turns the ultimate old geezer whine -- “Get off of my lawn!” – into a cold-blooded one-liner.

But this isn’t really what the movie is about. The heart of it is Walt’s growing friendship with Thao (Bee Vang), the teen neighbor who tries to steal his Torino as a gang initiation. Assigned by his honor-bound mother to work for Walt to save face, Thao gets an apprenticeship in Manliness 101 – or at least how they taught it circa 1952. There are lessons about buying tools, asking girls out, getting a job and how to trade insulting banter with other guys.

Speaking of insults, this movie probably contains more racial epithets and ethnic slurs than has been heard since a Don Rickles marathon. Walt freely refers to his neighbors as “gooks” and accuses them of wanting to eat his dog. My personal favorite was terming three of Thao’s romantic competitors as “click-clack, ding-dong and Charlie Chan.”

But the way Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk present the material, it gets the audience laughing instead of taking offense. It’s not so much that we’re guffawing at off-color jokes, but at the idea of such an out-of-touch oldster thinking it’s OK to still talk this way.

Eastwood seems to be having a high old time poking fun at his tough-guy persona, and uses his wattled appearance to comment on the absurdity of a septuagenarian vigilante. In “Gran Torino,” Clint Eastwood finally gets to put Dirty Harry out to pasture – on his own, wry terms.

Three stars out of four

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

About a bout of gout

When I started this blog, I knew I wanted to touch on a wide range of topics besides movies. I never dreamed I'd blog about having foot surgery, or that it would draw the most responses from people out there.

Unfortunately, I'm going down that road again. This morning Jean and I made a quasi-emergency visit to the podiatrist, where I was diagnosed with gout in my left foot. So that means my surgery foot, which still bears a large scab and is tender, is now my good one.

Gout is one of those mysterious old-people ailments that is often joked about. All I can say is that I've never experienced any kind of pain like this in my life. The only thing that comes close was when I dislocated both my knees in high school. But that was sharp and short. This has been absolutely excruciating. Imagine someone stabbing your foot with a dull knife, then continually twisting the blade around and around unceasingly for days on end.

I woke up with the pain early Sunday morning, and figured I'd jammed my toe or something. A couple of Advil knocked it down, to the point that Jean and I were able to move some large furniture from her house that afternoon, with nothing worse than a slight limp to show for it.

But it grew worse and worse. I did not sleep at all last night, and at one point considered calling for an ambulance. This morning I could not bear even the slightest weight on my left foot. I broke out in sweats and nearly passed out from the pain while brushing my teeth.

The doctor accurately described the pain from gout as "debilitating."

Anyway, I now have a pair of crutches rented from Kroger, and am hopped up on steroids and heavy-duty pain killers. I think they're starting to kick in.

All I know is, I'm never going to make light of gout ever again.

Huge crowd for Gran Torino

You can always get a sense of how eagerly anticipated a movie is by the size and behavior of the crowd at the promotional screening. These are held a few days in advance of the movie's opening, and people get free tickets by calling radio stations and such. The promoters always give away more tickets than they have seats, since not everyone shows up.

I showed up 30 minutes early to "Gran Torino" last night and was told the theater -- the largest at AMC Castleton -- was already filled, and they already had turned away 100 people. Probably quite a few more showed up after that and got the bad news.

(Luckily, somebody was doing their job and reserved a few seats for the critics.)

That's pretty astonishing for a January movie. And the crowd was very diverse in terms of ethnicity and age spread. Usually folks under 30 make up the bulk of the crowd.

Based on this, I'm betting "Gran Torino" is going to have a huge opening.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Why I still take the newspaper

Before heading off to the gym this morning, I followed my usual routine of reading the newspaper where I was formerly employed. Some people might wonder why I still do this, paying money to an institution that cut me loose so readily, and for a product that has clearly diminished. It's especially hard for someone like myself who is very interested in arts & entertainment and other feature coverage, and The Indianapolis Star has essentially eliminated the features section four days a week.

Oh, I know there's something included in the paper called an "Extra" section that the Star honchos would claim is the features section, but let's be blunt here: It's the classified section, filled out with comics and puzzles. There's been one small "story" at the top of the section each day, but it's a five- or six-inch blip with little substance. (I'm not being snooty; I had to write plenty of these myself over the years.)

The comics, puzzles, TV listings and syndicated columns are what we in the features biz call "furniture" -- stuff that occupies the same space day after day, and can be slapped in with minimal effort and editing.

They'd talked about these changes for months before they happened, and the question everyone in features department had was whether they were simply folding the features section into an existing part of the paper, as they have done with the business section, or actually eliminating all the daily features content except for the furniture. Now that we've seen it, it's clearly the latter.

So why do I still take the paper? Part of it is habit. I grew up with parents who read the paper every day (and still do), and it rubbed off. I can't imagine my day without thumbing through the sections, even though there's less and less of what I like to read. Some days "reading the paper" consists of a 5-minute skim.

Another part of it is reading the bylines of friends and former colleagues. Matt Tully takes a lot of beating in the Indy blogosphere, but he's a good friend and a good columnist, and I want to hear what he has to say. Ditto for David Lindquist, Shari Rudvasky, Mike Wells, Erika Smith and many others whose bylines I consistently enjoyed.

But the most basic reason is the one I would give to people when I was still employed by a newspaper, and they asked why they should pay for what they can get online for free. It's that news, or content, or whatever you want to call it, doesn't come free -- the good stuff, anyway. If I want to see this stuff, whether online or on paper, I feel I should pay something for it. Otherwise, it's likely to just go away ... suddenly, or bit by little bit.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Hurray for ... January?

January used to be the absolute pits for movies. All the big holiday movies came out in November and December, and the studios didn't start rolling out their good stuff until Spring.

Changes in recent years, though, have led to January becoming one of the better months for new movies, apart from the summer and holiday seasons.

First, the Academy Awards got moved up to February, which ended up compressing the time frame where ambitious films could get noticed. Some Oscar hopefuls started opting out of the crush, debuting in just a few cities in December to qualify, then waiting until January for their big roll-out. "Million Dollar Baby" followed this strategy a few years ago with virtually no hype, had January essentially to itself, and the money and golden statues rolled in.

Now many of the big Oscar wannabes are waiting until January to hit most markets, including "Gran Torino," "The Reader," "Defiance," "The Wrestler," "Revolutionary Road" and several others.

More importantly, studios have discovered that if you put out good movies during what is normally considered a slow time, avid movie-goers will show up.

So this month, in addition to those other movies mentioned above, some high-profile releases are slated. They include "Notorious," a biopic of rapper Biggie Smalls; "Bride Wars" with Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson; the third installment in the "Underworld" franchise; and the Rene Zellwegger romcom "New in Town."

Worthwhile movies in January ... whoda thunk it?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Why movie critics shouldn't make movies

One of the most common assumptions people have about movie critics is that they're just frustrated wannabes. This view is particularly strong amongst filmmakers themselves. They think we all have a trove of unmade screenplays sitting in our desk drawers, or some truly awful video attempts lying around.

With rare exception, this is not true. Most critics I know are quite content to watch movies for a living instead of make them. Well, those that still have jobs feel this way, anyway.

But over the years, some critics have successfully made the transition behind the camera. The most well-known are the French New Wave boys. Francois Truffaut is probably the best critic-cum-director. (I'm not such a big fan of Goddard.) In America, Rod Lurie ("The Contender") is the best-known example, although his films have been very hit-or-miss over the years.

Personally, I believe the skill set to be a good critic does not jibe with being a good director or screenwriter, and vice-versa.

This was confirmed for me yet again when I watched "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" the other day, the Russ Meyer flick written by Roger Ebert. It's a non-sequel sequel to "Valley of the Dolls," and essentially acts as a parody of it. After seeing Meyer and Ebert's effort, my feeling was that somebody needs to come along with a movie that makes fun of their movie.

If it's supposed to be funny, it's not. If it's supposed to be titillating, it's not. Mostly I was just happy for it to be over -- though I will admit a couple of the songs were decent, and Meyer is a visually inventive director. Although he seems to be a progenitor of the modern affliction of hyper-fast editing, in which no image is allowed to linger long enough to savor.

Ebert's one of my favorite critics -- watching he and Gene on television, along with reading the critic in my hometown paper, the Orlando Sentinel, is what first got my interested in the craft. I'm glad Ebert gave up his film career 40 years ago to hone what he does best.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The film education of Miss Jean (not Brody)

Being married to a film fanatic is not always peaches and cream, as the response to virtually every query about things to do is, "Let's watch a movie!" My wife has been very patient in indulging my passions, and letting me foist my sensibilities onto her.

One thing that became apparent soon after we started going out is that Jean has missed out on many of the seminal movies of our generation. It always astonished me when I would mention a line of dialogue or famous scene from a movie that I assumed simply everyone has seen, and she would respond that she hadn't seen it.

The Star Wars Movies, the Indiana Jones movies, the Godfather movies, the Lord of the Rings movies -- I could go on and on. It's hard to think that anyone who, like me, grew up in the 1970s and '80s could have missed all these cinematic events, but she did.

Needless to say, I've taken upon myself to tutor my bride in these matters. I knew she would be a patient pupil when (over the course of a couple of weeks) we watched the entire Lord of the Rings series -- extended version, over 11 hours total.

Before going to see "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," I had to show her "Raiders" -- her first encounter with the fedora and bullwhip.

She's enjoyed most of these "lessons" -- although after watching "The Godfather" for the first time yesterday, she did mildly inquire as to what the big deal was.

Some of them she's really enjoyed, and I admit it's a thrill to see someone having the same reaction I did to a movie the first time I saw it 20 or 30 years ago.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Hello, Louis(ville)!

Since May, my film reviews and articles have been running in three Florida newspapers, all part of the New York Times chain: Gainesville, Sarasota and Ocala. I started doing it for simple reasons -- the Star only let me review a handful of the bigger "event" movies, and it wasn't enough to satisfy me professionally.

Plus, as I tried to explain to my Indy bosses in a futile attempt to let me write more of it, criticism is a very specific type of writing that requires special muscles. You can't shut it down for months on end and expect to maintain any kind of proficiency. If I stopped going to the gym between July and November and then tried to lift the same amount of weight, I'd be swallowing dumbbells.

I can't begin to describe how grateful I am to my Southern colleagues for letting me have an outlet for my work -- and more importantly now, provide a little bit of income.

I'm pleased to announce that starting next week, the Courier-Journal in Louisville will begin running a featured review by me every week. Altogether, the circulation of my client papers now exceeds 400,000 -- far more than even the Star's considerable reach.

So as I welcome the new year and celebrate this new addition, I wanted to take the time to thank my "customers" for giving me a creative outlet at a time when I desperately needed it.

And for visitors to this blog, please visit their Web sites and click on the published links to throw a little extra traffic their way.

The Gainesville Sun
Ocala Star-Banner
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Louisville Courier-Journal

Read the reasoning for my Top 10

I shared the list the other day, now read the thoughts behind my list of the Top 10 movies of 2008. Click the link among my published articles on your left.