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30 Years, Three Men and a Baby . . . and one bogus ghost story.

Why on Earth did Three Men and a Baby become a hit?

By all accounts it should have been a genuine disaster, or at best, a mediocre formula comedy that was expected to open to modest weekend box office before fading quickly into obscurity.  Like so many films released in 1987, this one didn’t seem any different than the films that opened around it.  Yeah, we’re still in love with Planes, Trains and Automobiles and there’s a measure of affection for Less Than Zero.  But who saw Flowers in the Attic?   Teen Wolf Too?   AnnaDate With an AngelHiding Out?  Those films were like vapor, disappearing into obscurity as quickly as they came.

Somehow Three Men and a Baby misbehaved.  It rose above its expectations, broke through its formula plot and became the best selling movie of 1987.  That’s right — the highest grossing baby movie of all time turns 30 this year.  Oh!  And it was directed by Leonard Nimoy.  Yes, THAT Leonard Nimoy!

The story couldn’t have been simpler, three chauvinistic bachelors Peter (Tom Selleck), Jack (Ted Dansen) and Michael (Steve Guttenberg) share a lofty New York City apartment that operates as a revolving door of gorgeous nameless women; one-night-stands who come and go with the regularity of a traffic light until one morning their lives are turned upside down by the arrival of the one woman who won’t be leaving in the morning – a precious ten month old girl named Mary.

The better elements of the movie deal with exactly how unprepared these guys are for the rigors of dealing with an infant – most notably the regular issue of pooping.  Not only changing, but also buying baby food, getting the baby to sleep and very gently trying to get her to stop crying.  My favorite observation comes from Selleck who reasonably complains: “The book says to feed the baby every two hours, but do you count from when you start, or when you finish? It takes me two hours to get her to eat anything, and by the time she’s done it’s time to start again, so that I’m feeding her all of the time.”  Later when Michael is left alone with the baby while Peter goes out to get baby food, he tried to talk her down by singing: “Hush little baby don’t you cry/when Peter gets home I’m gonna punch him in the eye!”

Again, there was no reason why it should have worked so well.  But settling on basic observations of the way in which unprepared men are shocked by the difficulties wrought from taking care of a baby just grabbed the public’s attention – mostly women.  I remember sitting next to my mother in the theater one Saturday (I was 16 at the time) and she was clearly having an even better time than I was – maybe it came from experience.

Revisiting the film again recently on Blu-ray I was kind of struck by how good-hearted the film was.  The poop jokes are still funny but what struck me this time was just how much good feeling there was watching these three guys slowly pull away from their misogynistic lifestyle and surrender to a fatherly instinct they never knew they had.  They find that they must care about something, someone besides themselves.  For no real reason, I found myself with tears in my eyes at the moment when these three guys pulled together and sang a chorus The Spaniel’s 1954 hit “Goodnite Sweetheart, Goodnite” to get Mary to sleep.  Something about that scene just grabbed me and I tried to figure out why.  Most of it is a shot of the three guys gathered around the crib singing.  They start the chorus with the baby still crying (there’s a shot of her), then their voices die down a bit and we see another shot of Mary as she has finally settled into a blissful sleep.  I don’t know.  Why does that touch me?  It’s kind of beautiful.

I was also forced, once again, to question something that bothered me even as a teenager.  Why, in a sweet movie about three guys and a baby, does the movie contain a subplot about drugs?  The movie is based on a 1985 French film 3 hommes et un couffin (Three Men and a Cradle), which was a hit in France but, for me, was terrible in a way that I expected from this remake.  In that film the package that is delivered to the door is actually heroine – the guys think the “package” is the baby.  That leads to a badly mangled and unnecessary subplot involving some drug dealers who come looking for their lost booty.  But why?  Why was this subplot necessary?  In a movie involving funny jokes about poopy diapers and baby food and containing lines like “Michael, you’re going to have to wash where the poop was,” do we need a diversion about running around a construction site by men with guns.  Maybe it was the 80s element?  All movies were required to have a drug subplot whether they needed it or not.

I would also be remised if I didn’t mention the elephant in the room.  Yeah . . . that.

Somewhere in the early 90s, around the time that the far inferior Three Men and a Little Lady was set for release, an erroneous urban legend popped up about a ghost that was visible during one scene of the movie.  It takes place during a visit from Jack’s mother (Celeste Holm) as she’s carrying the baby around the apartment.  During the first pass by a sun-lit window we see what appears to be a rifle standing on its barrel.  On second pass there appears to be a little boy peeking through the curtains.

This came to me courtesy of my creative writing teacher who showed the scene to the class.  Not being skeptical of such things I watched with fascination.  When the “ghost” appeared on screen I got cold chills down my back and I will confess that I didn’t sleep that night.

The story was told that a boy had committed suicide in the apartment where the film was shot, killing himself with – you guessed it – a rifle.

It was a short time later that the so-called “ghost” was revealed to have been a cardboard cutout of Ted Dansen’s character dressed in a top hat and tux for a dog food commercial he had been filming (that scene was deleted).  As for the apparently suicide, it was made up too.  The interior scenes of the movie were shot on a sound stage in Vancouver.

Selleck even spoke about it recently with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show.

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Posted by on 11/25/2017 in Blog


Hokey Religions, Ancient Weapons: Star Wars turns 40

If my passion for movies were a galaxy then Star Wars would most certainly be its brightest star.  George Lucas’ seminal masterwork landed on America forty years ago today and its impact has never left us.  It has certainly never left the panoply of my life.  It’s still there in much the same way that it was when I first saw it.  It’s been a constant companion for these four decades – heck it was at my wedding!

At the time of its release, Star Wars was easy to write off, a kiddie matinee piece with a silly plot and lots of action, but its burst of creative thinking made it something more.  The movie sent such shockwaves through the culture that four decades later we still haven’t quite gotten over it – we can feel its effects.  And for one tiny five year-old living out there on the western arm of Arkansas, the movie bred a grand and glorious love affair with the movies that continues to this very day.

Star Wars is an experience, something rare, something special.  As Roger Ebert noted, it is not just a movie but a place in the mind.  Forty years later it has risen above being just a movie and has become part of our cultural heritage.  It is grand mythology, the inheritance of those of us lucky enough to have spent our formative years as tenants of the last third of the twentieth century.  Certainly, it has become fashionable to make fun of it, but to dismiss it is overlook its impact.  Take a look around you, at the movies you’ve been watching for the last three decades; at the video games; at the high tech; look at the television you’ve been watching.  It all owes something to Star Wars.

Like all great movies, Star Wars was a product of creative thinking and good timing – and, as we know, in show business timing is everything.  The late seventies were a strange time for creativity in Hollywood.  The studio system that had given birth to Hollywood in the early part of the century had, by the late 60s, broken down giving rise to a vast number of creative filmmakers who would usher in the age of the auteur, wherein the director was placed on a pedestal as the creative engine that drove their vision to greatness.  You might have heard of some of these young bucks: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, Steven Spielberg, William Friedkin, Woody Allen, John Cassavetes and, yes, even George Lucas.

The common thread running through all of these creative minds was the desire to make their own films without the hands of a thousand money-minded studio executives putting their hands in the creative soup.  Often that meant auteur directors butting heads with the money men.  Star Wars was no different.  During production no one had any faith in what executives at 20th Century Fox were calling “that science movie.”  Production was hit with so many problems that the studio put up a tax shelter and was already making deals to sell the film to television.  The distributor couldn’t get theaters to buy the film unless they sold it as a package deal with a movie that they thought was destined to be a blockbuster – The Other Side of Midnight – Seen it?  Me neither.

But then the public got a look at “that science movie” and beyond all expectations Star Wars  shocked the world, becoming a $700 million worldwide phenomenon.  No one had ever seen anything like it before.  It was the containment of all the story elements that we’d been familiar with from Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Saturday serials, World War II movies and the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells wrapped up in a package that infused the hip-cool sarcastic tone of the times.  Star Wars was bred from Lucas’ inability to obtain the rights to Flash Gordon.  It forced him to turn in a different direction and dive into his talent for what we now refer to as “universe building.”   The movie pulled us away from our own experience and took us to a new place while still holding on to the cinematic elements that we were familiar with.

One of the shockwaves that Star Wars sent through the culture was a reassessment of what the public wanted to see.  At this moment many of the most successful films were personal dramas – Rocky, Five Easy Pieces, Taxi Driver, The Conversation, The Last Picture Show, Saturday Night Fever, American Graffiti.  Up to this point in the decade, the most important genre pieces had been The Exorcist and Jaws.  Yet, science fiction seemed to flounder.  Wallowing as a nameless cinematic genre that blossomed in the wake of World War II, the science fiction genre had an uneasy time getting on its feet.  It flourished in books where the mind could regender the words into images, but on screen it was held back by the limits of visual effects and un-adventurous storytelling

Most sci-fi films were cheap knock-offs made for the drive-in crowds but were only occasionally about anything important.  Those that come to mind were The Day the Earth Stood Still, Planet of the Apes and, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Most sci-fi movies seemed bound to earth-born problems and warned us about the fate of our world.  Star Wars was different.  It pulled away from our world and took us to a new place, a different place where war was still prevalent but it was a universe that felt as lived-in as our own.  Here, you could walk through a busy small town and see aliens of every size and shape but it was no big deal.  They were on their way somewhere and so were you.  You could be best buddies with a six foot dog whose only vocabulary was made up of grunts and howls.  You could go out to the edge of your property and buy a couple of robots to help with the chores.  And you could jump aboard a spaceship and pop over to the next planet to smuggle some spice or maybe deliver precious cargo – for a price, of course.  There were politics here, broken down by an evil entity sweeping away the peacemakers and keeping factions in line by building a weapon capable of rendering a single planet to dust.

Lucas offers a story that we can easily get comfortable with. He offers character types and gives them bold personalities: The callow youth, the hot-shot, the wise old wizard, the beautiful princess (needing to be rescued, of course) and the loyal support of the muscle and the bickering comic relief. He offers a villainous enterprise not a million miles removed from the Nazi regime.  He places his heroes in the path of overwhelming odds so that tiniest dot in the universe ends up making massive a dent in the villain’s evil plan.

What Lucas had that other filmmakers in this genre did not was an eye for detail, and detail is key.  It might have been easy to hammer together a series of cardboard sets and have actors stand in front of them but it was something else to go to the trouble to create a desert town populated by humans, aliens, creatures and droids packed into the background so that entire frame was populated.  Not every alien was trying to eat your brain, most were just trying to eek out a living.

Lucas’ team also developed what has been called the “used future”, realizing that automobiles in his fantasy world should look used and rusted and aged, not sleek and looking as it if were created before the camera was turned on.  You could see the logic of how everything worked – you could see bolts and screws, and also grime.  Look at Luke Skywalker’s Landspeeder which has a thick coat of rust and dirt and a paint job that suggests it has spent it’s entire existence sitting in the hot sun.  Also note Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon, a rusty hulk that seems hammered together from spare parts (the best in-joke is that the heroes keep noting how shoddy it looks even as it is constantly saving their butts).  The villain is a hulking figure in a black mask who can choke his underlings without even touching them – but we (correctly) sense that the real measure of his strength is being held back.

Star Wars rides familiar rails only to the degree that we are familiar with its good vs. evil elements.  I mentioned that this was the right movie for the right time and its rebellious spirit was a model for the mid-seventies.  America, just out of the cultural rebellion of the 1960 had garnered a dismissiveness of authority at large.  In the case of this movie, it presents that element only to the degree that organized authority has ballooned into a Nazi-style regime – right down to the uniforms.  The order, the proclamations, and the plans can be seen as parallel to Hitler’s regime, right up to their development of a devastating weapon capable of excising whole civilizations at will.

Yet, there is another element of the anti-authority that Star Wars is famous for, and that’s it’s upending of Hollywood tradition.  Lucas broke the rules by eliminating the opening credits (he paid a fine and then promptly dropped out of The Director’s Guild).  The story took place in the past but looks like the future.  He starts in the middle of the series progresses his saga forward then turns back and tells the preceding story up to the point where this film begins.

By starting in the middle he develops a story that already has a rich history with characters that are fleshed out to the point that we are always interested in their relationships.  He develops a warrior spirit that is passed on from one generation to the next, from an old wizard Ben Kenobi, who is the keeper of a dying zen religion – The Force – that favors patience and a clear-head over mindless, random violence.  He imparts it upon the young Luke Skywalker, a callow youth hungry for adventure that we only slowly understand is the one who will bring about the end of the Nazi-like Galactic Empire.  The friends he takes along on his journey start as bold character types (a hotshot loner, a loyal dog-like companion, a feisty revolutionary and a pair of Laurel and Hardy-style bickering robots) but eventually their personality become more refined and we care about their journey.  Lucas was generous in these details.

He was also generous in the landscapes that allow us to feel that we are in a place, and not on a set.  We aren’t on a transplanted Earth, but on a terrain very far from anything we know – yet it looks familiar.  Everyone is the movie works, everyone has to make money.  Everyone has to survive.  The Jawas survive by selling droids.  The Farmers survive by bringing a harvest (of water, I suppose).  The smugglers survive by moving cargo from one place to another.  Even the Sand People survive by stealing and scavenging.  There are tiny elements too: the desert rats, the giant lizards that function like horses, the tiny mouse droids and even a bulbous robot whose only apparent function is to deliver a truth drug.  They all function to build a world that feels alive and Lucas’ generosity is even more potent when you realize that none of this was completely necessary.  The rebel spirit of Lucas’ creativity is what set it apart.

And YET, even with that rebel spirit, one of the most unfortunate legacies left behind by Star Wars is that it would bring an end to the rebel spirit of American filmmaking.  It’s success would help to usher an end to the era of personal filmmaking and bring back the studio-driven projects that everyone thought had gone away.  It brought about a blockbuster mentality that we are still living through.  In many ways, Hollywood has been trying to recapture the success of Star Wars ever since – even Lucas himself failed to recapture it.

Yet, it set set in place something is both a blessing and a curse, the culture’s dependency on forming an identity based around a product (and before you say anything, I’m guilty of this too).  Whether it be Star Wars or Star Trek or Pokemon or video games or even SpongeBob, we have bred a culture that is dependent on it’s personal interests as identity.  Is it a bad thing?  I don’t know, but it seems to have bred from the phenomenon wrought by Star Wars.

In her book “The Princess Diarist,” Carrie Fisher has possibly the best analysis of the film’s impact: “Movies were meant to stay on the screen, flat and large and colorful, gathering you up into their sweep of story, carrying you rollicking along to the end, then releasing you back into your unchanged life. But this movie misbehaved. It leaked out of the theater, poured off the screen, affected a lot of people so deeply that they required endless talismans and artifacts to stay connected to it.”

Of course, you can’t blame the movie for its impact.  It left a feeling in much of the culture to stay connected to it.  Certainly, I stayed connected to it.  When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things . . . except Star WarsLike the film industry itself, I have been looking to recapture that experience again.  Whenever I step into a movie theater, even faced with an impending cinematic disaster, some small piece of my mind hopes that maybe this will be the moment when I discover a film that will have the same impact on me.

Alas, Star Wars was a once in a lifetime experience that has colonized my imagination and poured off the screen in a way that no film experience ever has.  That’s why I come back to it time and again.  It’s the brightest star in my cinematic galaxy and it’s impact will be with me, always.

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Posted by on 05/25/2017 in Blog


Joss Whedon’s ‘Batgirl’: A bittersweet personal concern . . .

I guess when you write about movies on a regular basis, you learn never to expect too much.  Movie news is as regular as night and day but not nearly as reliable.  I am not a knee-jerk kind of guy when it comes to movie news, but this week something exciting got my attention that also came with a touch of the bittersweet.

The recent news that Joss Whedon was going to helm a stand-alone Batgirl project fills me with anticipation.  Batgirl is my favorite superhero, hands down, end of story.  This is not new – my love for Batgirl goes back to my days in single digits.  Plus – much like The Force Awakens – it is a movie that I never thought would happen.  So, yes, I’m excited.

But . . . .

I’m on the front lines when it comes to the fact that the DCU hasn’t yielded a string of greatness.  I’ve seen all of their films in a theater, usually opening weekend.  Every time I come away feeling burned, yet I keep going.  Like a bad relationship, I keep returning even though my love dun me wrong.

Outside of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, this expanded universe has yielded product that has ranged from ragingly mediocre to historically terrible.  Unlike Marvel’s line of product, which is consistently good, DC’s lineup of films have flopped over and died more times than a zombie that won’t stay dead.  Starting with 2011’s Green Lantern, we’ve suffered the ills of Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and the ragingly mediocre Suicide Squad.  Given that, I can’t exactly break out the pom poms for Batgirl even if Whedon’s creative hands are at the controls.

I hope it works.  Whedon has a special talent for handling female characters and for world-building.  He also has a unique talent for reconditioning superhero movies into a narrative that quietly speaks to us about the state of our world.  Plus, there’s a lot of potential politically and culturally; there’s hope that he can use this platform to break Hollywood’s quizzical fear of female heroes (I confess that I have no confidence in Wonder Woman) and maybe open up the gates of gender equality that the genre so desperately needs.

And yet, there’s a sticky issue afoot here.  Would the movie dig into Barbara Gordon’s disability?  Overlooking her paralysis could render a problem, yet dealing with it in the wrong way might make a lie of the character.  My guess is that the movie will probably deal with Barbara’s origins and how she came to acquire the cape and cowl.  That’s the safer alternative, but those of us who saw the wider scope of Nolan’s trilogy know that the Bat-verse can be more that just action and pointed-ears.

There’s hope for the movie.  There’s hope that it will break DC’s pattern of trying to make superhero pictures more “adult” but only succeeding at making them feel like a long car ride on a rainy day.

Moreover, I can hope that the film will be fun.  I miss that from DC.  Where’s the levity?  Where are the jokes?  Where’s the great spirit that I got all those years ago from the Christopher Reeve Superman movie, and recently from the Marvel pictures?  Who says super hero movies have to be sour and dark?  Who says they can’t be fun at the same time?  Let’s put it this way: there’s a reason Deadpool grossed $700 million last spring, and if the studio execs can’t figure that out then they might as well clean out their overstuffed desks.

I would like to be more excited about this.  I’m settling into a “wait and see” mentality but I’m not expecting the movie to fall on either side of the fence.  Maybe it’ll work.  Maybe this will be the film to break DC’s deadlock.  I can have hope . . . but then, I had hope for Suicide Squad.

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Posted by on 04/03/2017 in Blog


Armchair Oscars – 1954

Best Picture

On the Waterfront (Directed by Elia Kazan)
The Nominees: The Caine Mutiny, The Country Girl, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Three Coins in a Fountain

Rear Window (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
My Nominees:
The Caine Mutiny (Edward Dmytryk), On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan)


For 1954, I am choosing Alfred Hitchcock’s voyeurism over Elia Kazan’s politics and this was not an easy decision to make. This is the reason that the business of the academy awards is more or less superfluous because how could anyone compare these two great films? Both are great on their own terms. The academy’s choice was On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan’s expose of the dirty politics of a labor union among dock workers in Hoboken, New Jersey. This is very much a film of it’s time especially after Kazan spoke up to the House Un-American Activities Commission during the Communist witch hunt. This film was his answer to why he spoke up.

On the Waterfront is the more important film. Hitchcock, on the other hand, created a masterwork of pure filmmaking and when it comes down to deciding which film I could easily watch, right here, right now, I choose Rear Window.

I consider myself a student of Hitchcock. His films are pure, with little confidence in symbols and egghead analysis. It is said that he treated his actors like cattle but the payoff is that he treated his audience like gold. He made his films for the public, he made them entertaining and he made films with characters that at least approximate human intelligence.

Rear Window is mounted on an idea of complete simplicity. A man is trapped in one location, an island – in this case, a wheelchair. Jimmy Stewart plays L.B. Jefferies – Jeff to his friends – a traveling photographer who is in a state of confinement after an accident. A brilliant tracking shot gives us the entirety of his predicament as we see his broken camera and a photo of an airborne racecar tumbling right at Jefferies’ lens.

Jeff’s days of confinement are spent staring out of his window, which like all others, are open due to the intense heat. He takes daily inventory of the tenants in the apartments across the tightly packed courtyard. His travels haven’t given him much time to get to know his neighbors. There’s the lady he calls Ms. Torso, a party girl who has a steady stream of gentlemen callers. There’s the couple who live on the top floor who lower their dog in a basket to the garden below. There’s Ms. Lonelyhearts, a sad spinster who has dinner with imaginary dates or gets dressed up to go to the restaurant across the street and pretend she’s expecting someone. There are the newlyweds who pull the shade and rarely come up for air. There’s the frustrated musician whose labor bears no fruit. And there’s burly Mr. Thorwald who has an invalid wife and a marriage that seems to consist mainly of tolerance.

The habits of Jeff’s neighbors become routine and then one day he notices that Mrs. Thorwald has disappeared. Later that night, he sees Mr. Thorwald wandering in and out of his apartment during a rainstorm. Jeff’s curiosity centers on a few vital clues that lead him to believe that this man may have killed his wife. First comes a large suitcase, then the appearance of a saw, then a change in the arrangement of Thorwald’s flowerbed.

Jeff’s mounting suspicions come only from what he observes from his window. He’s in a wheelchair so his visual plane is limited and Hitchcock never allows us to see anything that Jeff can’t see. We become participants because Hitch puts us in the wheelchair with him. Close-ups are provided first through a large pair of binoculars, then through Jeff’s telephoto lens which allows us to see with clarity. There is no musical score (the only music comes from the musician’s apartment) so all of the sounds are natural. This allows the sounds coming from Thorwald’s apartment to be muted so that we think we know what we are hearing, but we aren’t sure. We strain to listen, to hear some hint of what is being said, but it is to no avail (closed captions don’t help).

Jeff’s state of immobility is the anchor of the story. Everything that Thorwald does seems to make sense if one just rationalizes it long enough. When he binds a trunk with heavy ropes and then has it picked up, we suspect that it contains his wife’s body. When Mrs. Thorwald’s purse appears in a window we suspect foul play because what woman would leave it behind? When Jeff’s detective friend goes to investigate, he comes back with a very reasonable, rational explanation that punches a hole in all of the evidence. Yet we have been drawn in, and we have invested so much in Jeff’s belief that we become a participant ourselves. Lisa (Grace Kelly), Jeff’s gorgeous fiancé, and Stella (Thelma Ritter) his level-headed nurse, at first scold him for peeping on his neighbors but eventually they become participants themselves. They, in a sense, become our point of view, disgusted by what Jeff is doing but eventually curious.

This is a film of limited characters, and one of those characters is the setting itself. It is important that the set feel like an additional character. The courtyard and the building across the way create a feeling of tight, closed-in space. It was a brilliant touch to set the film in the heat of summer so that all those windows are opened so that we get the noise of each apartment and we are able to peer in on each tenant. We can’t see the street on the other side, since it is obscured nor can we see the other tenements on Jeff’s side of the building. We see only what we need to so the mystery is held in our minds just as it is in Jeff’s mind.

Rear Window is Hitchcock at his best, toying with our expectations and then not only giving us what we expect but a great deal more. He is a puppeteer pulling the strings in such a way that the ending doesn’t come as a surprise but doesn’t come to any false conclusions. The final confrontation with Thorwald is not just tossed into the plot, it is built on everything we’ve seen before. Hitchcock famously said that he played his audience like a violin and with Rear Window, we like being played.

Best Actor

Marlon Brando
(On the Waterfront)
The Nominees: Humphrey Bogart (The Caine Mutiny), Bing Crosby (The Country Girl), Dan O’Herlihy (Robinson Crusoe), James Mason (A Star is Born)

Jimmy Stewart (Rear Window
My Nominees:
Humphrey Bogart (The Caine Mutiny), Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront)


Far be it from me to take anything away from the great Marlon Brando – and I’m not being cynical. Brando was part of the new generation of actors who brought Lee Strasberg’s method acting style to film, using a naturalistic feel to his performance to better replicate real life. Out went the old theatrical gestures and in came the “go with it” kind of acting style. He never used this to better effect than in On the Waterfront, playing Terry Malloy, a dock worker who dreams of being a prize fighter, and gets into trouble when he witnesses the murder of two of his corrupt boss’s hired goons.

I liked Brando’s performance. It is an example of pure acting (he practically invented it), but I think my choice for Best Actor had a more difficult task. Jimmy Stewart, in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, eeks out one of his best performances while almost completely confined to a wheelchair. Due to the complexities of the plot, Stewart’s performance doesn’t get enough praise (he wasn’t nominated for either an Oscar or a Golden Globe), but I think that L.B. Jeffries may be just as interesting as any of the great characters that Stewart played.

L.B. Jefferies is a busybody, a man who spends his career staring through the lens of his camera. The theme of the film is how his nosy nature gets him into trouble with his next door neighbor when his confinement leaves him with nothing else to do. The foreshadowing of his lack of self-preservation is signaled right at the beginning as we see a series of photos that end with a picture of a tumbling race car headed right toward Jeffries lens, then his broken camera, then a shot of his cumbersome cast. We know that he is a man who has a nose for trouble, but we also sense that he is a man who doesn’t know when to quit.

He also seems to be a man who doesn’t know what’s good for him. Over his shoulder for nearly the entire film is his girlfriend, a breathtaking beauty named Lisa (Grace Kelly) who want him to settle down and get married – preferably to her. But Jeff has itchy feet, he’s a man who likes to be in the thick of things and Lisa’s plans don’t fit with his. Jeff continues Hitchcock’s theme of confinement. Most of his male characters are confined by something – Norman Bates is confined by his mother, Scotty Ferguson is confined by his fear of heights, George de Winter is confined by secrets about his dead wife. Jeff is stuck in that wheelchair but has the itch to want to know what’s going on in the world. Within his small window, he finds his nosy nature drawing him to the business of the neighbors.

Jeff is probably the most ordinary of characters that Stewart ever played. In most of his post-war roles, the character is either haunted by his past or comes upon a revelation that becomes an obsession. He plays the latter here, a man who just likes to people watch. It is interesting that he and Hitchcock were able to combine all of these character elements into a character who 99% of the film is in the same room. Now that’s talent.

Best Actress

Grace Kelly (The Country Girl)
The Nominees: Dorothy Dandridge (Carmen Jones), Judy Garland (A Star is Born), Audrey Hepburn (Sabrina), Jane Wyman (Magnificent Obession)

Judy Garland (A Star is Born)
y Nominees: Grace Kelly (Dial M for Murder), Grace Kelly (Rear Window), Debbie Reynolds (Susan Slept Here)


The story goes that on the night of the 27th Annual Academy Awards, Judy Garland – who was nominated for her performance in A Star is Born – was in the hospital having given birth to her son Joey. Television cameras had been set up in her room so that she could give her acceptance speech from her hospital bed if she won. When Grace Kelly was unexpectedly declared the winner, the crews immediately dismantled their equipment and cleared the room without a word of comfort for her loss nor congratulations on the birth of her son.

In a way, that kind of defines how Judy Garland was treated by the industry for most of her life. She had been a child actor, the youngest member of The Gumm Sisters kiddie act when she was a young child, billed as “The Little Girl With the Great Big Voice”. In her teens she would find herself under contract to MGM and under the thumb of the bullish studio boss Louis B. Mayer. She became a movie star in the series of Andy Hardy pictures and found her legacy at 17 in The Wizard of Oz.

The studio worked her day and night, giving her drugs to put her to sleep at night and further drugs to wake her up in the morning. The image-conscious publicity department hounded her about her appearance and her weight while she was already deeply insecure about these things in the first place.

By 1950, the pills had turned to an addiction and it was beginning to affect her work. After a disastrous shoot on Annie Get Your Gun, MGM deemed her unmanageable and fired her. No one seemed to care that her distractions at work came from the fact that she had recently broken off her relationship with husband Vincent Minnelli and then suffered a nervous breakdown which led to her attempted suicide.

When MGM dismissed her in 1950, it was the first time since 1934 that she was without studio support. She went on the stage and had a successful tour for the next four years and when she came back to Hollywood it was on her own terms. She formed her own production company, Transconda Enterprises with George Cukor and husband Sid Luft and began to put together a remake of the Janet Gaynor classic A Star is Born. The end result wasn’t met with great support, as exhibitors complained when the film ran over three hours, a running time that Warner Bros. executives demanded cut by at least 30 minutes. Those cuts took the guts out of the film and studio boss Jack Warner decided not to sink a single dime into promotion. The film flopped at the box office.

In spite of the box office failure, most were certain that Judy would win the Oscar for her performance. The movie showed that, despite her personal problems, she was still a powerhouse performer. When she lost the Oscar, most were outraged. Groucho Marx called it, “The biggest robbery since Brinks!”

The surprise winner for Best Actress was Grace Kelly in George Seaton’s joyless backstage snoozer The Country Girl. Pried from a play by Clifford Odets, it tells the story of a washed-up alcoholic showman named Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby) who is given the opportunity to revive his career through the efforts of director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) who puts his reputation on the line to help him and then spends the rest of the movie shouting at him. In the middle of these shouting matches comes Grace Kelly (unattractive and dowdy), who plays Crosby’s long-suffering wife Georgie who crabs at the director while he crabs at her husband.

Grace Kelly was a luminous presence in the movies, beautiful, intelligent, and talented. Yet in the year of her double success with Hitchcock, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, the academy gave her an Oscar for one of the least impressive performances of her entire career. Perhaps the academy was giving her credit for taking an unglamorous role – she wore thick glasses and little makeup – but I cannot understand why they were not willing to welcome back Judy Garland for, arguably, the best performance of her career.

Garland is wonderful in the role of the unfortunately named Esther Blodgett, a small-time showgirl with a band who has a great big voice and an amazing stage presence. During a show one night, a drunken actor stumbles out and begins to imitate the dancers. Esther improvises and dances him offstage. The man is Norman Maine (James Mason), once a box office champ whose star has begun to fall due to his age, his carousing and his alcoholism. Even while intoxicated, he charms Esther, using her lipstick to draw their initials on the wall in the middle of a heart.

Later, having sobered a bit, he sees her in a club singing “The Man that Got Away.” He’s charmed by her stage presence and introduces himself. Something in his eyes tells Esther that this isn’t a pass or a glib compliment; there is sincerity in his voice. This is the thing that will stay with her all through the remainder of their relationship. What he sees in her is a woman who is a born performer, a woman who is emotionally generous and someone who will not judge him.

Using what little pull he has left with the studio, Norman gets Esther a contract with a studio and her career takes off. The studio puts her through the rigorous beautifying ritual including wigs, a false nose, a false chin and a new name, Vicky Lester. Amused by the studio meddling, Norman removes all the applications and the putty but leaves the name.

The romance blooms and they get married in private, under an assumed name. Esther’s career takes off and she becomes a star almost overnight. Meanwhile, Norman’s career is rapidly deteriorating, his contacts want nothing to do with him, the studio won’t hire him and he is made to look like a heel. He begins to realize, very quickly, that all he really has in the world is Esther’s support. She refuses to devalue him even when a drunken incident lands him in jail. Deep down inside, Esther knows that Norman is the reason for her success and she knows he still loves her. There is never a moment when the two have a screaming match (though we expect it), she knows his faults and won’t devalue his support of her even after he stumbles drunk onstage during The Academy Awards after Esther wins an Oscar and ruins her moment. All those around Norman have given up but Esther stays by him.

There is a spark in their relationship, we know they love one another and the film doesn’t shy away from all the reasons. We feel the romance between them. That’s especially true of a brilliant scene in which Esther shows Norman the production number she’s been working on, an around-the-world number called “Born in a Trunk” as she dances around their apartment practically using every object – the couch, the chair, the lamp – as a prop. There is a vibrant joy and energy and the smile on Norman’s face is real. There are moments when Esther performs (and she exudes effortless joy) that Norman sits back and simply smiles, admiring her.

The ending is one of the saddest, most touching that I can remember. After having spent time in jail, Norman knows that he will continue to be an albatross around Esther’s neck. He decides to end it all and walks into the ocean and dies. The papers the next day report that it was an accident and a heartbroken Esther still stands up for him. Returning to the stage, she tearfully tells a waiting crowd, “This is Mrs. Norman Maine!”

Judy Garland had an ease on screen, she had a wonderful screen presence that made you believe she was having as much fun performing as you did watching her. A Star is Born showed that even after all of her real life problems, she was still a brilliant actress. It makes me sad the film under-performed because it kept her away from the screen for another six years until a surprisingly good performance in Judgment at Nuremberg (and another acting nomination). But who knows where the success of this film may have taken her? We’ll never know.

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Posted by on 06/22/2016 in Blog, Uncategorized


BLOG: The Reel Jesus


If you grew up cradled in the nest of the Christian faith, as I did, then you have inevitably struggled at one time or another with the puzzle that Jesus Christ was both God and man.  This is not thought to be a theory.  It is also not a new idea; the First Council of Ephesus in 431 AD was the first to recognize and affirm that Jesus’ hypostatic union – the idea that Jesus was fully human and fully divine – was dead solid fact.  From that moment on, this has been an idea that every Christian has had to ponder.

It is also a comforting idea to some of us that Jesus could bear the divinity of God while at the same time pulling together the doubting qualities of a human being – the paramount attribute of God is that he is flawless while the paramount attribute of man is that his anything but.

For me, I am comforted by the fact that Jesus Christ was God in human flesh, that he made himself human in an effort to have a sense of empathy with the human race.  That comfort comes to me from one small passage in the book of Mark.  On the night just before Jesus is to be arrested by the Romans and later crucified, he is hiding out in the garden of Gethsemani.  There he falls to his knees and begins to pray: “Father, with you all things are possible, take this cup away from me.”  What this says to me is that there was a large measure of humanity existing within this man whom history has taken for a divine being.  I am comforted by the fact that if Jesus experiences doubts and fears; if he could struggle with his humanity then maybe it is not so frightening for me to struggle with my own.

The picture of Jesus as a perfect being is of course an adamant of history given to us, not through Jesus Christ himself, but by the testimonies of those who knew him – this is the construct of the Bible’s vision of Jesus, everything we get is basically second-hand and was discovered hundreds of years after he died.  Jesus wrote nothing down and our vision of Christ is built first by “The Gospel According to . . .” and second by the historical vision of the most famous man in human history.

If you disagree with me, I completely understand.  Look around you, no two human beings on the face of the Earth have a picture of Jesus Christ that is exactly the same.  We don’t know what he looked like; We don’t know what he sounded like.  If we saw him, we might not even recognize him – the picture in your mind is probably born of the Pre-Raphaelite watercolors of the Renaissance created some 1500 years after Jesus walked the Earth.  Our vision of him remains within ourselves.

Which brings me to the movies.

I have made it known on the blog that I believe that what is written in The Bible should never be taken as a nailed-down version of history – The Bible is a record of historical events but it is not a history book.  The Bible should challenge you to look at your own life, listen to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and find a path of peace and harmony within the word of God.  Every vision of Jesus and his life and the meanings of what he stood for reside within the individual.  Debates about who he was and what he meant to the world will be debated until the day that mankind ceases to exist.

The artistic world has had its own version of Jesus ever since the moment that it realized who and what he was meant to stand for.  From paintings to statues to the moving image, mankind has always found a fascination with this man.  The movies, my beloved institution, have given lip service to what it thinks about Jesus and what he had to say.  The lesser films about Jesus’ life do him no credit.  They are exercises in hagiography that sap his humanity.

In most cases I am troubled by Jesus’ portrayal on the screen.  In the lesser films about his life, The Robe, Son of God,The 1999 miniseries Jesus; the stop-motion film The Miracle Maker; The Greatest Story Ever Told; the 1979 feature Jesus.  These films feature Jesus as a watercolor dream, as a beatific figure going through the motions as if the filmmakers are afraid of offending the audience.

In these films he is often seen as a remote figure, a distant figure who is so perfect and so beautiful that he loses the ability to be relateable.  The worst movies about Jesus find neither passion nor purpose, they shy away from challenging the audience by giving them only the Sunday School version that turns Jesus’ life into a series red letter moments: He heals the sick, raises the dead, feeds the multitudes, walks on water, gives inspiring sermons and he cheeses off the Romans until they crucify him.  What is missing are the spaces in between.  What was it like for Jesus on an average Tuesday?  What must have been rolling around in his mind while he had a clear vision of what his purpose on this Earth was to be?  It is reasonable to assume that Jesus’ dual personality must have caused him great emotional and mental distress, especially in knowing this information.  Christ in these films remains remote and distant, an icon without substance or conflict.  He’s more a bland picture postcard.  Think about how dynamic a man like this must have been.

In my lifetime I have only seen three films that ever come close to the humanity that we know resided within him.  First was Jesus of Nazareth, an epic, glorious 1977 production starring British actor Robert Powell in the title role and surrounded by . . . well . . . every single living actor at the time who had a free afternoon.  I like the film but I have only seen it once because at 382 minutes, I just can’t find a weekend free to devote to it.

I was also impressed by The Passion of the Christ which I am alarmed to find makes many people’s worst list of films about Jesus.  This is, indeed, a passionate film, a film that came from Mel Gibson’s heart and makes me sorry that he gave up directing.  It is straight-forward about the last days of Jesus and gives us a front-row seat to his ultimate suffering and death at Calvary.  Roger Ebert called this one of the most violent films ever made, and that may be true, this is an EXTREMELY violent film.  But the point is to get us to understand the suffering.  If we are to believe that he died for our sins, then we must understand what he went through to get there.

And then there’s the most uncomfortable (and best) of the three, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, which cause rage and fire before it was released in 1988 mostly at the hands of so-called believers who reviled and pilloried the film without even seeing it (imagine that).  Based, not on the scriptures, but on the equally controversial 1952 book by Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, the film has the nerve to focus less on the divine qualities of Jesus but on the torments of his flesh.  Was he tempted?  How human was he?  Was he tempted by Satan to accept a normal life instead of dying on the cross?  Did he have doubts?  Did he question his calling?  These are questions that all of the above films don’t want to deal with.  They don’t want to question what Jesus was thinking on his way to the cross or on his way to his resurrection.

Played in a beautiful performance by Willem DeFoe, Jesus is seen here for his human qualities.  He’s frustrated, he’s angry, he’s doubtful, he’s afraid.  In other words, he’s all of those qualities that I have found in myself and attached to my vision of Jesus from The Book of Mark in which he asks God to “take his cup away from me.”  The movie will not make many people happy.  It questions the mission of Jesus, it questions his purpose, it sees in him the doubting human qualities that we as human beings share.  It’s a glorious film in that way, because it purposes the idea that if he can overcome temptation then maybe it is easy for us mortals to do that same.

Of course, that’s my pathway to salvation.  I find solace in the word of God in more places than just the movies.  Movies are a way of bringing things close enough for us to understand them.  The Bible is and should be an instruction guide to life, not a weapon to heap upon those who see things differently.  That’s my long-winded exaltation on the King of Kings.  Happy Easter everyone, and my God bless.


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Posted by on 03/27/2016 in Blog


Heeding the Call: A look into the ‘Ghostbusters’ trailer


As everyone who knows the meaning of the words “social media” is probably aware, the trailer for Paul Fieg’s remake of Ghostbusters dropped last week. Reactions have been mixed and analysis has moved from ultra-positive to . . . eh. Yet, by this point we’ve all become so suspicious of trailers that it doesn’t surprise me that the general consensus is “Yeah, it looks interesting, but I’ll reserve judgment.”

To be honest, that’s kind of where I am. I’ve kind of kept my head out of the production news for this one – there was another popular series that has kept my attention for the past year – and now the finished product is on display. The reaction: It looks fine.

What we get from the trailer is a mixture of new efforts to turn this series into something different while at the same time rehashing and recreating classic elements of the first movie, actually too many. There’s a scene that resembles the joke about the library ghost. There’s a scene resembles Rick Moranis’ possession subplot. There’s a scene that resembles the joke about getting the car. There’s a scene that resembles the mass hysteria in New York. This has me worried that much of the movie will be given over to fan service, and recreations of classic scenes just to keep our attention.

The new resides in the fact that the four leads are women, funny women. As a matter of fact, these are some of the funniest women working right now. We can see their efforts here in fits and starts and many of them work. It’s also nice that the movie isn’t cast with twenty-somethings. Of the four major players, four are in their 40s save for Kate McKinnon who is 32. That’s admirable when you consider that most movies of this scale are almost always cast with women under 30.

What does not work, I’m afraid, are the ghosts themselves. In the original Ghostbusters, the ghosts were mostly wispy and spectral; they had fluidity to their movements. They were apparitions that really felt like what we might imagine from spectral leftovers. Here, I’m afraid, they’re not as impressive. Their forms are closer to zombies and, for some reason, they’re mostly all blue. Why are they blue? There is a scene in which we see a community of ghosts standing bunched together and it looks like a black light painting. That’s an odd choice that I hope doesn’t become the aesthetic for the whole movie.

Yet, all that pales in comparison with the #1 issue at hand; will the comedy work? Here’s the ice cold truth about comedy: no one can really know until the project is done whether the movie is funny or not. Comedy is purely lightening in a bottle, either you catch it or you don’t. That was the seed of the original movie back in ’84. It worked because the pieces came together – if they had moved the story and the dialogue just a little to the left and you’d have had, well, Ghostbusters 2.

The original Ghostbusters worked because the dialogue was sharp (mostly at the hands of Bill Murray) and because we cared about the characters. It was also a complete shock. It felt like something new. That original movie took people completely by surprise: a special effects movie that could also be funny. It was a case of all the right pieces falling into place at just the right time. This is what worries me about the remake: there’s a lot of expectation riding on this one, and when you give that kind of pressure to a comedy, you’re asking a lot.

I realize that my reaction isn’t overloaded with optimism. My pessimism is based on recent history. I’ve already been through one unnecessary ghost-themed 80s remake in the past year with Poltergeist and while I move toward the Ghostbusters remake with slightly more anticipation (Poltergeist is closer to my heart so I walked into the remake with pure dread), I do so without getting my hopes up. I’ve been burned before when I’ve coasted on anticipation only to have my hopes come crashing down. The trailer for the new Ghostbusters movie is interesting, I’ll say that, but having had my head stuck in this medium for the past 25 years I’ve come to learn that trailers are not a revelation. Trailers don’t show you the movie that the studio made; trailers show you the movie the studio wishes they made.

If there is one thing that deadens my anticipation here it is how close the movie seems to be paralleling the original. The plot seems to be ebbing in that direction, and that’s the safe way to go.  So there’s the food for thought. Why does this remake feel so safe? Columbia Pictures, by giving us a female cast, is clearly trying something new, but why not try a new story? If they really wanted to be new and different why didn’t they try a plot that took the characters out of New York. Or maybe turn New York into the ninth level of Hell and let the girls deal with a different kind of threat. Will it work? I hope so. Thirty-two years ago Ghostbusters caused an explosion of mass hysteria.  In my heart, I’d like to think that the new cast can recapture that same magic all over again.

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Posted by on 03/06/2016 in Blog


The 88th Annual Academy Awards . . . What an Awkward Day!?!

Chris Rock

It was a lovely day for some and a not-so lovely day for others at the 88th Annual Academy Awards Sunday night as attempts at correcting the #OscarsSoWhite scandal became a source of humor. No, there were no actors of color for the Oscar this year, but the issue wasn’t swept under the rug either.

First let’s deal with the awards.

Spotlight was the surprise winner for Best Picture. The true story of The Boston Globe’s attempts to unearth the priest sexual abuse scandal from a decade ago won only two awards, for Best Picture and for Best Original Screenplay, but in the top category it toppled the expected winner, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. Meanwhile Iñárritu took away the prize for Best Director becoming the first since Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1949 and 1950 to win two consecutive awards in that category – Iñárritu won last year for Birdman. The Mexican-born director spoke passionately about eliminating the barriers of color and diversity as the band tried to play him off before giving up and letting him speak.

Three of the acting winners were no surprise. After six nominations, Leonardo DiCaprio finally won Best Actor for his performance as a fur trapper in The Revenant and turned most of his speech into a plight for the preservation of the environment.

Over in the Best Actress category, newcomer Brie Larson won for playing a woman who spends seven years locked in a tool shed by a sicko in the drama Room.

In the supporting race, Dutch actress Alicia Vikander expectedly took home the award for playing 20s artist Gerda Wegener who endures her husband’s search for sexual identity and then a very risky sex change operation in the period drama The Danish Girl.

Yet, the surprise was English actor Mark Rylance who won the Best Supporting Actor prize for playing American communist Rudolph Abel in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. It was an award that was expected to go to Sylvester Stallone for his seventh go-around as Rocky Balboa in Creed, or as host Chris Rock dubbed it “Black Rocky.” Rylance is only the second actor to win an Oscar in a film directed by Steven Spielberg after Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln three years ago.

Backstage the actor was asked about the uncomfortable moment when his name was announced. Presenter Patricia Arquette said “Mark R . . .” and then paused, causing many to think that the winner was co-nominee Mark Ruffalo. Rylance said he had gotten use to it since the same thing happened at the BAFTA awards a few weeks ago.

The rest was a lovely day for George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, which swept most of the technical and artistic awards, winning six including Makeup, Production Design, Costume Design, Film Editing, Sound Effect Editing and Sound Mixing. Preventing its clean sweep was the sci-fi epic Ex Machina which picked up the award for Best Visual Effects and The Revenant which picked up the award for Best Cinematography.

On the musical side, Sam Smith received and the Best  Original Song Oscar for “The Writings on the Wall” from the lastest James Bond adventure Spectre.  The singer, who is openly gay, used his speech to bring attention to the LGBT community.  And in a touching moment, the Oscar for Best Original Score went to the legendary Ennio Morricone who won his first competitive Oscar at the age of 87 for Tarantino’s The Hateful EightThe Italian composer has been working in the movie business since 1959.

And yet, the winners had to take a backseat to the elephant in the room. The Academy, having been criticized for its lack of diversity among African-Americans, has been at the center of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy for the past month, leading Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs to make changes in the Academy’s by-laws that are suppose to make it more diverse and inclusive.

On this, the show took a sometimes light-hearted, sometimes heart-felt attempt to address the issue.  The producers of the show sought to include African Americans as presenters and performers clearly in an effort to show that they understood the problem. Did it help? Sort of. It might have been easy for The Academy to sweep the controversy under the rug, but in spending the entire night nervously trying to overturn the problem, their efforts felt both admirable and a little desperate.

Host Chris Rock turned the issue into his entire opening monologue. Putting the controversy into perspective he questioned why this year’s Oscars had to be the one with the controversy. “Why this Oscars? It’s the 88th Academy Awards, which means that this whole no-black-nominees thing has happened at least 71 other times.” Then he reasoned that in the 1960s it wasn’t an issue “Because we had real things to protest at the time.” Taking a stab at the celebrity protesters, he singled out Will Smith: “It’s not fair that Will (Smith) was not nominated for ‘Concussion’. It’s also not fair that Will was paid twenty million for ‘Wild Wild West’”

The controversy brought Rock a wealth of material, from small jokes – returning from a commercial break and quipping “We’re black” – to larger jokes such as placing black actors in some of the nominated films, like Whoopi Goldberg mocking nervous QVC pitchman Jennifer Lawrence in Joy and then placing himself in The Martian. Some jokes worked while others, including an awkward appearance by Stacy Dash – who recently called for the elimination of Black History Month – fell flat. Later, a serious moment came from Vice President Joe Biden who called for an end to the rape scandals at America’s universities. Biden made an attempt to pound the podium but left everyone asking “Why are you even here?”

Overall Chris Rock did a fine job smoothing over what could have been a very awkward evening. While most of his jokes ebbed in the direction of the controversy, others were aimed at making the night more relaxed. Taking a cue from Ellen two years ago, who got pizza for the people in the audience, Rock helped his daughter’s Girl Scout troop by selling cookies and raising $65,000.

Very few of the speeches were all that memorable. Most were a list of names that led into whatever issue was on the winner’s mind at the moment. The most creative was Costume Design winner Jenny Beavan who concluded her speech by reasoning that if we don’t take care of our planet, we’re in danger of making the world of Mad Max a reality.

The producers this year, thankfully, moved away from trying to make the old dinosaur young and hip – they had other issues to deal with. One issue was how to stop winners from running down a list of names during their speech thereby boring the audience and inevitably forgetting to thank important people. This was done by a ticker at the bottom of the screen. Whenever a winner was headed to the stage, the television audience was given a scroll of people that the winner would like to thank. Did it shorten the show? Not a bit.

So, how will this year’s Oscars go down in the history books? Let’s be realistic, take away the controversy and you won’t have much to talk about once the excitement has died down. It was memorable this week. A month from now it will have slipped quietly from your mind. What will be left? Hopefully an industry that will open the doors to diversity, that will make changes to its methods.  But let’s be realistic, this is Hollywood.  It will pay lip service to the diversity issue then slip very quickly back into the same old pattern.  We’ll have new problems to address.  See you next year.

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Posted by on 02/29/2016 in Blog


My Annual (and fairly confident) Oscar Predictions

Tag Best Picture 


The Big Short | Bridge of Spies | Brooklyn | Mad Max: Fury Road | The Martian | The Revenant | Room | Spotlight

From the moment that it was named as a nominee, and even for sometime before that, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant has stood apart from the pack. This bitter cold epic about a fur tracker who is mauled by a bear (twice), then left for dead, then watches his son murdered before his very eyes, then is forced to drag his broken body hundreds of miles across the snowy wilderness, then forced to confront his son’s killer is filmmaking of the highest order. It’s a tough, brutal epic so uncompromising that makes you feel ashamed of your petty first-world problems.

In that way, it makes the other seven nominees feel like they’re standing one step back. I’ve been on the wagon that The Revenant is the clear winner for months, and I still believe it. However, recent pundits have pulled its chances down a bit. The Revenant may be the best film among the nominees, but the pre-awards are starting to give others a slight boost. Dispatch with the hangers-on: Bridge of Spies, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian and Brooklyn are off the table, they don’t have a snowball’s chance here. And the sleeper Room will settle for being rewarded in the Best Actress category. That leaves Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s sobering drama about the Boston’s Globe’s investigation into the Catholic priest abuse scandal, and The Big Short, Adam McCay’s oddball comedy about the housing crisis. While Spotlight is respectable and just has the feel of an Oscar winner, The Big Short has won The Producer’s Guild Awards, voted on by the same people who vote for the Oscar. So there’s that.

Yet, after watching and studying The Oscars for 25 years, I have to go with my gut. Something about The Revenant feels right. I could waffle back and forth about films about newspapers, spies, road warriors, mars, captivity, the housing crisis, and the Irish romance; for the second year in a row, the top prize goes to Iñárritu and his crew. I just know it.

Winner: The Revenant
Darkhorse: Spotlight


Tag Best Director

Lenny Abramson for Room | Alejandro González Iñárritu for The Revenant | Tom McCarthy for Spotlight | Adam McCay for The Big Short | George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road

Here’s diversity for you: Alejandro González Iñárritu, a Mexican-born director won the Oscar last year for Birdman and is poised to win again for The Revenant. Take that Spike Lee!


Tag Best Actor


Bryan Cranston in Trumbo | Matt Damon in The Martian | Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant | Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs | Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl

It’s time. After five previous nominations, it’s time to reward Leonardo DiCaprio. And if you’ve seen the film, you know why. Few actors took the beating that Leo did in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, as a fur trapper who survives a brutal bear attack and treks miles and miles across the Dakota wilderness to get back to civilization. It is possible that, given what he goes through, DiCaprio may have played the toughest character of any actor this year. This one is so clear that I can’t even see a darkhorse.

Winner: Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant
Darkhorse: none


Tag And the Other Races copy


Cate Blancett in Carol | Brie Larson in Room | Jennifer Lawrence in Joy | Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn | Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years

The understandable knee-jerk reaction here is to set your sights on Jennifer Lawrence. She’s an Oscar favorite and one of the best actors of her generation. Early predictions tended to point in her direction, but Joy, in which she plays a real-life woman whose burst of inventiveness gives the world The Miracle Mop, has received a lukewarm reception from just about everyone. It’s hard to call her a darkhorse, but her chances for a second Best Actress Oscar stands down from the new kid in town.

Brie Larson is a star in the making, and her chances lie in the fact that she not only gave a great performance but seems to be cleaning up in the pre-Oscar awards, most crucially the Screen Actor’s Guild Award which is voted on by the same people who vote in this category. Larson is the star of the moment. She made waves two years ago with the indie drama Short Term 12 that cinemaphiles are still talking about. This year she proved that is was no fluke. In Room, she plays Joyce, a woman forced to spend seven years in captivity, locked away in a tool shed by a sicko and eventually giving birth to a son. But the story isn’t about the machinations of captivity (spoiler alert), it’s about the long-term psychological state of a person who has escaped from such circumstances who must now work to rebuild their lives in a larger world that they no longer know. Larson could easily have ridden this performance on anguish alone but it’s the internal struggle that propels her to move out of the darkness and into the light for her son. It’s a great performance and I’ll be happy if, and when, she wins.

The Winner: Brie Larson in Room.
The Darkhorse: Jennifer Lawrence in Joy.

Tag Best Supporting Actor


Christian Bale in The Big Short | Tom Hardy in The Revenant | Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies | Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight | Sylvester Stallone in Creed

It is reasonable to assume that Sylvester Stallone’s lock on the Best Supporting Actor Oscar this year comes packaged in heaps of nostalgia. I won’t disagree, but I will say that it’s not without reason. Stallone brings Rocky back around for the seventh time but it never feels tired. He plays Rocky as a man who has experienced the loss of those he loves and faces a future with few new opportunities. That, in many ways, is how we met him 40 years ago but now he’s older and wiser and we see a man facing the bitter reality of the adamant of time as he faces a battle with cancer, and attempting to train a hungry young fighter who faces the same temptations that he himself once experienced.

40 years ago, Stallone was nominated for Best Actor for this role but he lost out to Peter Finch for Network for no other reason than that the man died a month before the ceremony. That may have been for the best because the passage of time has given us a chance to appreciate what this character has meant to the legacy of American film. It’s not just a wagon of nostalgia; this Oscar is for Stallone in the single best performance of his career.

The Winner: Sylvester Stallone in Creed
The Darkhorse: None


Tag Best Supporting Actress


Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight | Rooney Mara in Carol | Rachel McAdams in Spotlight | Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl | Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs

Throughout this Oscar season, I have run up and down this category believing, at one time or another, that all had the potential to be frontrunners (except Rachel McAdams whose nomination is really for the ensemble, not the performance). As the ceremony draws closer, it has narrowed down to Oscar veteran Kate Winslet (her seventh nomination) and the new kid, Danish actress Alicia Vikander. Winslet seemed to have been the frontrunner after winning the Golden Globe, but then Vikander won The Screen Actor’s Guild Award, which is selected by the same voters who vote for the Oscar.

Winslet was at the heart of Steve Jobs, playing the computer genius’ long-suffering head of marketing and showed a mastery of Aaron Sorkin’s tricky dialogue. Yet, the more emotionally full-filling role went to Vikander who not only suffers being a woman in the 1920s struggling to build herself as an artist but also dealing with the emotional turmoil of being married to a man who faces a confusion of his gender. Both are hard-working performances, but I think the new kid has the edge.


Tag And the Other Races

Best Original Screenplay

Bridge of Spies | Ex Machina | Inside Out | Spotlight | Straight Outta Compton

It may seem a bit ‘on the nose’ to give a writing award to a screenplay about writers, but anyone who has seen Spotlight knows what a tricky piece of work this is. In dealing with the journalists of the Boston Globe who broke open the priest abuse scandals ten years ago, Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer’s script doesn’t exploit the material but focuses on the long-term effects of the victims and the machinations that kept the church wrapped up in a protective cocoon of deception and collusion. It’s a brilliant script and it deserves to be rewarded.


Best Adapted Screenplay

The Big Short | Brooklyn | Carol | The Martian | Room

This is part of the reason that I think that The Revenant will win Best Picture, because the three best films in that category are all going to win something. Revenent will Best Picture; Spotlight will win Best Original Screenplay; and Adam McKay and Charles Randolph’s bizarre and comedic script for The Big Short about the housing scandal will win here. Yet, if the voters are in a generous mood, there may be a surprise with Emma Donoghue’s emotionally satisfying Room.


Best Animated Feature

Anomalisa | Boy & the World | Inside Out | Shaun the Sheep | When Marnie Was There

Like Best Picture, there isn’t a slacker in the bunch here. All are worthy but I think Pixar’s comeback feature Inside Out was the most explosively creative (not to mention, the best) film of the year.


Best Foreign Language Film

Embrace of the Serpent (Columbia) | Mustang (France) | Son of Saul (Hungary) | Theeb (Jordan) | A War (Denmark)

I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t seen any of the Foreign Language Film nominees this year so I’ll got with the frontrunner, Son of Saul from Hungary.

Best Original Song

“Earned It” from Fifty Shades of Grey | “Dahealia” from The Weekend | “Manta Ray” from Racing Extinction | “Simple Song #3” from Youth | “Til It Happens to You” from The Hunting Ground | “The Writing’s on the Wall” from Spectre

None of the six nominees this year is really anything to write home about, so it falls to massive celebrity to pick a winner. The presence of Lady Gaga for her anti-rape ballad “Til It Happens to You” from the documentary The Hunting Ground is not the best work she’s ever done but it is likely to be seen as the most important. The Oscar goes to the cause, not the song itself.

Best Original Score

Bridge of Spies | Carol | The Hateful Eight | Sicario | Star Wars: The Force Awakens

John Williams goes into the history books by receiving his fiftieth nomination for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he now has more Oscar nominations then any living person. It is also likely to be his last – he came out of retirement to write it. Yet, oddly enough, it may be the most underwhelming score of the entire series. Meanwhile Ennio Morricone crafted a wonderfully ominous Hell-bound score for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Morricone and Tarantino were at odds on the set, so that will make for a very interesting Oscar speech.

Best Production Design

Bridge of Spies | The Danish Girl | Mad Max: Fury Road | The Martian | The Revenant

With the exception of The Danish Girl, most of these films take place outdoors against harsh and unyielding elements. Yet, the only one that really stands out are Colin Gibson and Lisa Thompson’s work creating the Dante-like world of Mad Max: Fury Road.

Best Cinematography

Carol | The Hateful Eight | Mad Max: Fury Road | The Revenant | Sicario

As with Best Production Design, these nominees – with the exception of Carol – take place mostly outdoors. All are worthy but this one goes the Emmanuel Lubezki for The Revenant. If he wins, it will be his third in a row after Gravity and Birdman.

Best Costume Design

Carol | Cinderella | The Danish Girl | Mad Max: Fury Road | The Revenant

Double nominee Sandy Powell is the architect behind both Carol and Cinderella. While a win for Cinderella wouldn’t surprise me, I have a feeling that the voters in this branch are going to want to reward Carol somewhere and this may be their one win of the night.

Best Make-Up and Hairstyling

The 100 Year-Old Man Who Jumped Out a Window and Disappeared | Mad Max: Fury Road | The Revenant

Pretty slim stock here. Scares and beards make up the work on The Revenant while The 100 Year-Old Man is simply age work. That leaves the award in the hands of Mad Max: Fury Road.

Best Film Editing

The Big Short | Mad Max: Fury Road | The Revenant | Spotlight | Star Wars: Force Awakens

My heart immediately goes out to Star Wars for this one, but I must concede that the tradition of this category is that whatever wins Best Picture, usually wins Best Editing. The Revenant is a possibility but if they break to tradition, I see this one going to Margaret Sixel (wife of director George Miller) for Mad Max: Fury Road.

Best Visual Effects

Ex Machina | Mad Max: Fury Road | The Martian | The Revenant | Star Wars: The Force Awakens

In my heart, this award goes to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but in reality I can’t remember where it broke any new ground. That mantel belongs to the work done by Mark William Ardington, Sara Bennett, Paul Norris and Andrew Whitehurt for Ex Machina . . . which would happen in a perfect world. One more for Mad Max: Fury Road.

Best Sound Editing

Mad Max Fury Road | The Martian | The Revenant | Sicario | Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Sound Mixing

Bridge of Spies
| Mad Max Fury Road | The Martian | The Revenant | Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I will concede to anyone who tells me that Mad Max: Fury Road will walk away with these awards. But in my deepest heart, wanting to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens get something, I’m going to take a chance and declare it the winner.

Best Documentary Feature

Amy | Cartel Land | The Look of Silence | What Happened Miss Simone? | Winter On Fire: The Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

The most stunning and achingly sad film of the year was Amy about the rise and fall of Amy Winehouse. It was moving, it was beautiful and it deserves an Oscar.

Best Documentary Short

Body Team 12 | Chau – Beyond the Lines | Claude Lanzmann: Specters of Shoah | A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness | The Last Day of Freedom

The film-lover in me is automatically drawn to Claude Lanzmann, about the groundbreaking filmmaker who made the holocaust documentary Shoah 30 years ago. But A Girl in the River, the story of a girl faced with and Honor Killing in a small village seems a more likely choice.

Best Live Action Short Film

Ave Maria | Day One | Everything Will Be Okay | Shok (Friends) | Stutterer

I am lucky enough to have seen all of this year’s nominees for Live Action Short film and in a pack that includes a lot of downers, my favorite is the most light-hearted, Stutterer, the story of a loner with a debilitating speech impediment who is faced with meeting the woman with whom he has been carrying on an online romance.  Yet, I suspect that the voters are going to gravitate toward the darkest of the nominees, Shok the pitch black story of two childhood friends growing up in Kosovo during the war.


Best Live Action Short Film

Bear Story | Prologue | Sanjay’s Super Team | We Can’t Live Without Cosmos | The World of Tomorrow

My favorite nominee here is We Can’t Live Without Cosmos, the touching story of the friendship between two Russian cosmonauts, and there are signs that this may be the darkhorse.  But I think the voters will be more dazzled by The World of Tomorrow, a bizarre line-drawn short about a 5 year-old girl who meets and ancestor from 227 years in the future.  The story behind the short is even more interesting than the film itself.  The director Don Hertzfeldt recorded the sounds of his niece Winona Mae playing in her bedroom and built a story around them.

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Posted by on 02/28/2016 in Blog


Year of the Stallion


Barring a major upset Sunday night, it is pretty much agreed by everyone that Sylvester Stallone will have an Oscar to show off on Monday morning.  Not just any old Oscar mind you, it will be an award for playing one of the most iconic characters in movie history for almost half a century, an adulation not only of his performance in Creed but of what Stallone brought to the movie landscape through the sad-eyed loner that the actor now dubs “my imaginary friend.”

For those of us who were raised in the last third of the 20th century, Rocky is something of a fairy tale character.  Like Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones or Inspector Clouseau or Christopher Reeve’s Superman, he’s part of the tapestry of our movie mythology.  The others have experiences we can only imagine, but Rocky lives in the terra firma of our imaginations, and for those of us who grew up being picked last for everything, he made our struggle not so isolating.  He made it okay to be an outsider.

Sylvester Stallone has always seemed like an outsider.  His career has more downs than ups – it is fashionable to make fun of it, to see it as a long series of wasted talent. Yet is easy to forget the uphill climb he made to even get noticed. Way back when, when he was just a wet-behind-the-ears up-and-coming actor, Stallone took a chance. Over one weekend, he pounded out a beautiful screenplay about a nobody who accidentally gets a chance at a one-in-a-million shot. Rocky was his own story, and when he took it to the studio, everyone fell in love with the script but nobody wanted him for the title role. They wanted tested talent like Ryan O’Neal or Nick Nolte. Today it seems impossible that anyone else might have embodied the role, but back then he might have seemed easy to dismiss. He didn’t exactly look like a matinee idol. He was a droopy-eyed, sad-looking fellow who spoke with a long drawl and didn’t seem to possess a great deal of brain power.

Yet, Stallone was adamant that this was the role he was born to play – he saw in this character, an element that others could not. He saw the vulnerability, the seething ambition and the tender heart of this kid who just needed a break (some of us could relate).

Rocky Balboa was the balance board for Stallone’s career. It is impossible to imagine where he might have gone without that success. Yet, the movie became an international phenomenon, a cultural icon that, against-all-odds, was awarded the Best Picture of 1976 by The Academy  against extreme heavy-hitters like All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver and Network. Looking back now, it would seem that Rocky was the right movie at the right time. This was 1976, just on the heels of the humiliation of Vietnam and Watergate and the feeling that America was rupturing as it approached its 200th birthday. We wanted something to feel good about, and it turned out that Rocky was the perfect symbol of our times. America, in many ways, was like Rocky in that we felt a sense of wasted potential, that time had passed us by; that we needed one more shot to prove ourselves.

Stallone did not win an Oscar for Rocky, either for acting nor for his beautiful script, but he achieved something else, an immortality that no single award could ever match. Where he went from there is where his story gets a little sticky.

Somewhere along the way, it began to fall apart. Success can often calcify talent, and Sylvester Stallone’s great early potential was overturned by a long series of easy paychecks. Like Burt Reynolds and Eddie Murphy, Stallone began taking work that did not match his potential. Yes, he became the biggest star in the world, but by the 1990s what did he have to show for it? Rhinestone? Stop or My Mom Will Shoot? Lock Up? Over the Top? Was this the byproduct of Rocky’s success? Even the Rocky series itself became a laughing stock when The Italian Stallion went to Russia to fight The Soviet Superman. If you ever want to see a living example of life imitating art, watch the first half of Rocky III when you see Rocky’s career after winning the Heavyweight championship from Apollo Creed. Rocky has everything in the world, but it is all built on sand, on taking set-ups and easy matches. Rocky lets his ego get the better of him and he loses the thing that helped him rise to the top. Many accused Stallone of doing the same thing. Yes, the box office was there, but what was it founded on?

Yet, it has always seemed that at the lowest points in his career, Stallone returns to his beloved creation and reminds us what a good actor he could be.  At a low point in 2005, he began work on revitalizing Rocky once again with beautifully-made Rocky Balboa, a movie nobody initially wanted to make.  And yet, like the original, this movie shocked the world.  It was a return to form for Stallone and his creation as he took a chance by taking away the heart and soul of Rocky – his beloved Adrian who in the movie had passed away from cancer.  The image of Rocky seated in a folding chair at a cemetery talking to her headstone could have rung with bad laughs, but in following the hard-fought journey of The Italian Stallion, the message was that grief was his toughest competitor.  The movie proved that Stallone is best when he’s passionate about what he’s writing.  When his heart is in the project, we get Rocky.  When it isn’t, we get Rhinestone.

Passion is at the very heart of the movie the seems to encapsulate the best aspects of what he can do as a performer, and the movie that will win him the Oscar Sunday night.  Creed, I believe, is the peak of his career, a beautiful sequel that moves The Stallion off-center in favor of a young up-and-coming fighter Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of Apollo, fighting to find his own identity in the shadow of a father who has been lionized by history.  And yet, even though Rocky’s story remains at the film’s edges, it never feels like an intrusion.

Directed by Ryan Coogler, Creed finds Rocky facing the inevitability of his own mortality.  He still misses Adrian – of course he does – but he’s a man whose breadth of experience are weighing down on him.  He’s older, wiser, and worse he’s alone.  Not only is Adrian gone but so is Paulie.  What Stallone brings to this performance is his life experience, the undeniable fact of aging, the undeniable fact of his loneliness.

The performance comes from his guts and what startles us is how far he’s willing to let himself go.  When he realizes that he’s looking at the son of Apollo Creed, we can almost feel the avuncular instinct welling up inside him, a knee-jerk need to want to protect this kid who has suddenly dropped into his life.  Rocky’s whole life has been a series of temptations that he can see being laid out before young Donnie.  He doesn’t want to see him fall into that trap.  And yet, while he encourages the kid to never give up, the kid is shocked that Rocky has given up on his own fight.  Refusing to get treatment for cancer due to what Adrian went through, Rocky is resigned to his own fate, but Donnie won’t hear of it.  Both are struggling, and both have to do the climbing to beat the odds.

In Creed, Stallone allows an upfront vulnerability that he has never allowed in any other role.  You would be hard-pressed to find another actor more comfortable inside the skin of a character that he himself created.  And for Creed it was a risk.  He put down the pen and allowed a new director and a new screenwriter to take Rocky’s story in a new direction.  It’s a brave move because it has resulted in the best performance of Stallone’s career.  Ryan Cooglar and his co-screenwriter Aaron Covington wrote a beautiful new chapter. There are themes to be explored not just about determination but about battling this thing called life and making decisions that will chart the course of destiny.  For Stallone, he’s finally come home again and in his hands, an Oscar.  He can finally say “I did it.”

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Posted by on 02/27/2016 in Blog


The Oscar Nominated Short Films: Animated

Over the weekend, I attended a screening of this year’s Oscar nominated animated and live action shorts on a program put together by ShortsTV. Here’s what was included:


Sanjay’s Super Team
Pixar’s accompanying short for The Good Dinosaur was this sweet, but not exactly deep confection about a little Indian boy Sanjay who would rather watch his favorite cartoon show than pray next to his father. His father tries to rectify that situation but Sanjay grows bored and imagines the Hindu gods as superheroes. The joy here is the style. While the real world is 3D computer animation, Sanjay’s action fantasies revert back to a colorful style of 2D. While it’s fun to look at, the short doesn’t really reveal a purpose. It’s just entertainment, but we expect more from Pixar than that.


The World of Tomorrow
If you just see the film on its own, then it might be a little frustrating that this bizarre pencil-drawn short is this year’s frontrunner. But if you know the backstory, then it makes more sense. The story involves a five-year old girl named Emily who is visited by one of her ancestors from 227 years in the future who shows her what the world of tomorrow will look like. The story moves from comedy the melancholy at a pace that, admittedly, is tough to keep up with. The backstory is far more endearing: The director Don Hertzfeldt recorded the sounds of his niece Winona Mae playing in her bedroom and built a story around them. It is her natural sounds that provide Emily’s lines.

Bear Story

Bear’s Story
This is a beautifully crafted short that tells the story of a bear that works as a tinkerer and spends his down standing on a corner telling his tragic story via a clockwork box with a crank on its side. It seems that some time ago, Mr. Bear’s family was taken away to the circus and never returned. While it is lovely to look at, I found it a bit too melancholy for my taste and the ending never really resolves anything.


Of all the films here, this is the only age-appropriate short film in the bunch due to full male nudity and graphic violence – and at only 5 minutes, it’s also the shortest.  This film opens with a shot of hundreds of used pencils followed by a stack of paper. Director Richard Williams’ film is visually composed entirely of that stack of drawings, and is really stunning as a recreation of an incident in the Spartan-Athenian wars from 2,000 years ago.  It’s also quite bloody.


We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
My favorite short out of the bunch is probably the simplest, a wordless, hand-drawn tale of two Russian friends – designated by the numbers 1203 and 1204 – who grow up with the shared dream of becoming cosmonauts. We follow them through their training and spend time with them as they dream of floating out in space together. Then something happens which I won’t reveal but I’ll just say that it leads to an ending that put a tear in my eye.

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Posted by on 02/25/2016 in Blog