Monthly Archive for May, 2014

The Normal Heart

The Normal Heart (5/31/14) HBO (2014 ***1/2) Directed by Ryan Murphy, written by Larry Kramer (based on his play), starring Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer and Alfred Molina. Set in the early 1980s, a gay activist fights pretty much everyone to get the word out about the AIDS epidemic. I saw Jim Parsons on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and he described this project as a real-life horror film. That very much came across, and I well remember a period in the Mid-1980s when the American public began to learn about AIDS and that it had all the ear-marks of a pandemic, one without any cure. Today, thirty years later, there’s still no cure, though modern medicine knows considerably more about the HIV virus and it doesn’t have to be the death sentence it once was. One of the major themes of this film was the conflict at the time between getting the word out about AIDS and undoing the progress the gay community had made in the preceding ten years. Very moving and thought-provoking.

The Loved One

The Loved One (5/31/14) TCM (1965 **1/2) Directed by Tony Richardson, based on the book by Evelyn Waugh, starring Robert Morse, Jonathan Winters, Anjanette Comer, Liberace, John Gielgud and Rod Stieger as Mr. Joyboy. When Englishman Dennis Barlow’s uncle commits suicide, funeral arrangements lead to love and… weirdness. I had vaguely fond memories of The Loved One from watching it (as well as reading Waugh’s boook) as a teenager who’d just fallen in love with Harold and Maude and had developed an appetite for black comedy. I’d forgotten, however, just how much the plot meandered for the second half of the film. In fact, though its storyline about shooting the deceased into space was intended to be deliberately absurd, it drifted so far from the main character that it became boring. The increasing number of point-of-view shifts didn’t help, and for awhile I wasn’t sure whose story was being told. On an unrelated note, there was a happy coincidence and more than a dose of irony that I watched The Loved One less than a week after Robert Morse’s musical farewell on Mad Men.


Maleficent (5/31/14) Glendale Americana 18 (2014 ***) Directed by Robert Stromberg, starring Angelina Jolie, Alle Fanning, Sharlto Copley and Imelda Staunton. In the tradition of Wicked and most of the storylines in Once Upon a Time, this film tells the story of Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of its surprisingly sympathetic villain. Though it was clearly heading toward being a box office juggernaut, I didn’t expect much from this film. This was in spite of TV commercials that used snatches from Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty Waltz,” a song I loved as a kid, in a way that sent shivers up my spine. The film was all right for what it was: I understood going in that a sizable fraction of the audience was going to be younger kids, so it couldn’t be too intense. The effects were ever-present and generally well-executed, though the uncanny valley was crossed more than a few times. Angelina Jolie turned in a solid performance that almost made me forget her prosthetic cheekbones. And I’ll be damned if this movie didn’t make me cry in spite of myself. One final note: Climactic fight sequences are a staple of tentpole summer action movies like this, and recently I’ve become impressed by how well choreographed some of them are, like the one we’d seen the previous week in X-Men: Days of Future Past, or earlier this year in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. By comparison, the third act battle sequence in Malificent was quite disappointing and weakly designed.

Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook (5/30/14) SHO (2012 ***1/2) Written and directed by David O. Russell, based on the novel by Matthew Quick, starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver. When a man released from a mental institution struggles to put his life back together, he never expected healing to come in the form of a recovering nymphomaniac and a dance competition. It took me a couple years too long to get around to watching this film that was nominated in 2013 for eight Oscars but only walked away with one for Jennifer Lawrence as Best Actress. Between this film, The Fighter (2010) and American Hustle (2013), I think I’m becoming a David O. Russell fan. I love the way he’s able to incorporate humor seamlessly while still creating memorable, well-defined, naturalistic characters. I also very much appreciate his storytelling style, which is organic, yet with just enough structure to keep it from feeling aimless.

Ruby Sparks

Ruby Sparks (5/30/14) MAX (2012 **) Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, written by Zoe Kazan, starring Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas. A young writer struggling with his sophomore novel creates a character so real she comes to life. I didn’t realize until looking up the credits on that Ruby was played by the woman who wrote the screenplay. I’m not saying that explains a lot, but it definitely informs my view of the film. I recorded and watched this because I remembered reading about it and the premise sounded intriguing, which it was. The film certainly started on a fun note, but then it got increasingly darker, to the point when it became unpleasant.

A Thousand Clowns

A Thousand Clowns (5/30/14) TCM (1965 ***) Directed by Fred Coe, screenplay by Herb Gardner, based on his play, starring Jason Robards, Barbara Harris, William Daniels, Martin Balsam and Barry Gordon. A cynic has to decide between freedom from the trappings of modern society and the nephew he’s been taking care of for years. There are some films that burn themselves into your mind at an early age and never really leave you. For me, this is one of those films. Thing is, I know exactly why I loved it so much as a kid: I totally identified with Barry Gordon’s Nick, a middle aged 12-year-old with a genius I.Q. It’s just a shame he wasn’t in more of the movie, which had far more scenes of people talking without really getting anywhere than I remember, and I think the 118 minute film could have been trimmed by a half hour without losing much. A quick search in my reviews shows I watched it back in 2009 and had more or less the same impression of it, and the film’s ambiguous ending is still troublesome to me. In all honesty, I’m not so sure what the takeaway message was supposed to be, and I have to wonder if it was more clear in Gardner’s original play. It could be the filmmakers wanted to have it both ways. Still, it must have connected with then-contemporary audiences on some level, because the film was nominated for Best Picture.

84 Charing Cross Road

84 Charing Cross Road (5/30/14) TCM (1987 ****) Directed by David Hughe Jones, based on the book by Helene Hanff, starring Anne Bancroft, Anthony Hopkins, Judi Dench and Mercedes Ruehl. Spanning two decades beginning in 1950, a female New York writer reaches across the Atlantic for reasonably-priced books and forms a bond far stronger than book-binding glue. I loved this movie when it first came out, though not quite enough to read Helene Hanff’s epistolary novel/memoir on which it was based. After all these years, it remains a beautiful film with a story made all the more poignant knowing the principal characters were real people. But as much as I love this film on an emotional level, I also have to appreciate it in terms of its production execution. Prior to its airing on TCM, Mel Brooks, who was the film’s executive producer (as well as the late Anne Bancroft’s husband), bragged about how the movie, shot half in New York and half in London, cost almost nothing ($4 Million) to make. (Favorite)


Frankenweenie (5/30/14) STARZ (2012 ***1/4) Directed by Tim Burton, featuring the voices of Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Winona Ryder and Charlie Tahan as Victor Frankenstein. When a young boy loses his beloved pet in a car accident, he turns to the dark side of… science. The big story behind the making of this film is that Tim Burton was fired from Disney for “wasting money” on a half-hour live action short by the same name. And so it’s more than a little suiting that Burton should make a feature-length stop motion version thirty years later. As for the film itself, I enjoyed it… but only up to a point. My standard criticism of Tim Burton is that his stories always feel a little unbalanced, and not in a good way. For a change, Frankenweenie’s story was very tight. I also liked the wall-to-wall tributes to classic Universal monster movies, which had also been done quite well in the Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. But for all the good in the film, it still didn’t quite connect with me on an emotional level. That might be because of the character design, but also because the story begins with a great emotional hook (the death of a boy’s dog), but then heads into territory more closely resembling Gremlins (1984) and Mars Attacks! (1996).

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (5/29/14) STARZ (2003 **1/2) Directed by Stephen Norrington, based on the comic books by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, starring Sean Connery, Peta Wilson, Stuart Townsend, Shane West and Richard Roxburgh. A short list of Victorian-era literary heroes are assembled to fight an equally-familiar evil genius hellbent on starting a world war. This film was the last one directed by a man named Stephen Norrington, who I had the trauma-inducing experience of working with on one of his previous films. Sean Connery was quoted as saying about Norrington: “On the first day I realized he was insane.” Later, at the film’s premiere, which Norrington didn’t attend, when Connery was asked where the director was, he replied, “Try the local asylum.” LXG (as it was referred to in its ad campaign) was also Connery’s final (so far) appearance on the silver screen as an actor, and the one he credits with helping him make the decision to retire. As for the film itself, I reluctantly recognize that it’s not terrible. In fact, I have to give the filmmakers some props for trying to make an Avengers-level action epic (including a “hulk” named Mr. Hyde) using 2003 digital techniques. While some may find the effects mediocre by today’s standards, I personally applaud them for trying in the first place, especially given the challenges the director must have given the film’s effects teams.

The Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger (5/29/14) STARZ (2013 ***) Directed by Gore Verbinski, starring Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Ruth Wilson and Helena Bonham Carter. When a group of Texas Rangers are slaughtered in an ambush, one of them returns from the grave and puts on a mask to begin a legendary fight against injustice. I’m not sure why this was such a flop at the box office, taking in a mere $89 million against a budget of $215 million. Though not a great film, it was far more enjoyable than I expected. I thought the characters and their relationships were interesting and the action set pieces (and there were many of them) were well-executed. I think it may be another instance of a film’s release not lining up with the zeitgeist. 2013 audiences just were not ready to embrace a film set in the old West, even if it features the cowboy equivalent of the superhero and is given the Pirates of the Caribbean treatment, complete with Johnny Depp.