Monday, December 30, 2013

MY PICKS FOR THE BEST FILMS OF 2013


2013 wasn't a great year for movies. It had a pretty awful summer too, with no release during the hottest months truly capturing the zeitgeist. However, the fall started a series of movies that were both critical hits and made money too. The Academy won't have trouble picking 10 Best Picture nominees from 2013, nor did I have any real difficulty coming up with a 10 Best List. 

Now, picking the best amongst such a year’s slate isn’t all that difficult. My list has a lot of overlap with the lists of most others out there making up such things. Even so, as I poured over my list, I noticed a significant trend in my selections. Most of my picks for the year’s best tended to be very much of the moment, reflecting the mood of our time.

And what is that mood?  Loneliness.

I suppose the theme of isolation is reflective of a time where so many have lost faith in their government, press, church and community. A time where Facebook passes for friendship, where used car salesmen have better reputations than our elected officials, where equal rights are still in question, and banks make record profits while the middle class disappears. Who’s got our backs? Makes you feel alone, doesn’t it?


It’s all over our movies this year. Robert Redford is the man against the sea in ALL IS LOST. Chiwetel Ejiofor loses his freedom and spends 12 YEARS A SLAVE. Joaquin Phoenix dates a computer in HER. No one can be trusted in AMERICAN HUSTLE. And Leonardo DiCaprio is such an evil broker conning his customers that he's literally able to throw away hundreds in the garbage can in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. This captures our sense of being screwed, of having to fend for ourselves with no 'wingmen', no one looking out for us. 

That sensibility can even be found in fluff like WORLD WAR Z where Brad Pitt is the only one who sees what’s going on. It's there in SAVING MR. BANKS where Emma Thompson has to go up against the Disney machine. It's there as Matthew McConaughey can’t even get the appropriate drugs from his own doctors to fight his case of AIDS in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB. These films, and so many more, are filled with tales of the lone individual up against a world that just doesn’t seem to give a crap about them.

There’s no AVENGERS-style “we’re a team, dammit” theme this year, even though it was so prevalent last year. We’re so polarized today, with a viciousness driving every news cycle, that it’s no wonder this year’s roster feels so much darker and desperate.

Yet, it's made for some truly great films. Our despair is good for drama on the big screen. Here then are my picks for the best in film this past year - a dark lot, true, but nonetheless stunning.

GRAVITY
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Written by Alfonso Cuaron and Jonas Cuaron

Of course its special effects were truly spectacular, its simple yet dramatic story was as poetic as it was powerful, and its star turn by Sandra Bullock could net her another Oscar. But what made Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece so enthralling for so many, and why it was one of the year’s biggest critical and box office hits, was the fact that it was truly transporting. It put you right there, smack dab in the middle of the stars, lost in space. We shared in the feeling of being alone in the void with Bullock’s astronaut and her desperate situation completely. She was tethered to nothing except her own wits, luck, and a hand from God in the form of George Clooney. Her survivalist tale was the strongest metaphor for a world where few bother to hear you scream anymore. It is rare that a film can take us out of our world so completely yet be grounded in it so wholly too. For me, it was the most vivid film experience of the year.

AMERICAN HUSTLE
Directed by David O. Russell
Written by Eric Singer and David O. Russell

On the surface, this film is a scathing black comedy about the Abscam scandal from the 1970’s, with a sharp script, A+ production values, costumes & makeup, and clever performances by Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. But what David O. Russell’s comedy of manners is really about is acting - the acting that we all do to get through the day. His con artists here hustle to make a living, just as we all do, learning how to pretend, go along, say the right thing to keep our job, marriage and station in life intact. This is a period piece, but it couldn’t be more about how we all have to operate today, doing what we can, faking it when needed, due to the fact that we’re all too often pushing the water uphill on our own. It’s a cheeky, timely piece. And it’s got the luminous Amy Adams in plunging necklines throughout. What’s not to love?


HER
Written and directed by Spike Jonze

This love story, between a man (Joaquin Phoenix) and his computer’s operating system (the voice of Scarlett Johansson), may take place in the not-too-distant future, but it is all about today as well. It’s a mournful commentary on our modern society where people spend way too much time nattering about in their own head. Writer/director Spike Jonze is examining how we don’t see friends; we see their exploits on Instagram. We don’t use our phones to talk; we use them to type. We use ear buds to keep the world out of the concert going on in our minds. We’re losing the ability to connect. And how cheeky of Jonze to play out his technological love story with the exact same beats that every relationship goes through - from the first flush of intimacy to the last sputters of the breakup.


NEBRASKA
Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Bob Nelson

Alexander Payne’s latest film is shot in black and white, and it’s as dry and droll as the Midwestern plains captured by Phedon Papamichael’s austere cinematography. The story is about loneliness, and Payne knows his pain. Bruce Dern plays Woody, an old coot that believes he’s won a million dollars, but that’s really just his cover story. What he’s truly after is some attention. He’s been an afterthought to his family and friends for decades so he claims he won a sham sweepstakes to get them to take notice. And when he finally has their attention, he holds his head high and basks in it, knowing that it may have come late but at least it has arrived.


BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR
Directed by Abedellatif Kechiche
Written by Abedellatif Kechiche, Ghallia Lacroix and Julie Maroh

Relationships are messy. Living together, sharing a bed, sharing a bathroom – messy, messy, messy! And breaking up with someone is the messiest thing of all. It doesn’t matter if your American heterosexuals or French lesbians, relationships are tough for all of us. And this film by Abdellatif Kechiche boasts a brutal honesty about love that is rarely captured by the movies. His two female stars (Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux) play the lovers and they give this story their all, with emotionally and physically naked performances that are startling. It’s a detailed and nuanced examination of all the moments in the trajectory of a relationship, from the very start to the lonely, bitter end. And it resonates so deeply because we’ve all been there.


THE CONJURING
Directed by James Wan
Written by Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes

This was the year’s best horror movie and it earned its scares because it's played as so incredibly real. (And without the benefit of handheld ‘cinema verite’.) Based upon a true paranormal activity story from the casebook of 1970’s ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren, this frightener kept audiences on the edge of their seats with genuine dread and not cheap scares. Wan expertly dramatized very good people battling very bad demons without laying on blood or gore. And in the end, good does conquer all, but then again, when has the devil ever taken no for his final answer? It sets the stage for sequels and is a potential franchise that has plenty of stories to tell. After all, the Warrens did investigate the Amityville horror.


CAPTAIN PHILLIPS
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Written by Billy Ray

Another tale of survival like GRAVITY, only this one stars Tom Hanks as a barge captain who's kidnapped and ransomed at sea. He’s more everyman than Navy SEAL and he has little more than his wits as weapons against the well-armed Somali pirates. Greengrass is superb at tightening the screws and creates a nail-biter here that is all the more incredible because it really happened. And when Tom Hanks breaks down at the end, it’s one of the most moving scenes of the year. Trust me. See it and you'll be sobbing too.


BLUE JASMINE
Written and directed by Woody Allen

Cate Blanchett plays a Manhattan society dame, down-on-her-luck after her shyster businessmen husband left her virtually penniless. She shows up at her sister’s crappy apartment in San Francisco, looking for a place to stay, and soon is driving everyone around her bonkers.  She resists all opportunities of kindness that come her way and keeps everyone at arms length. She chooses her own loneliness. And at the end she's got no one, not even herself as she's gone 'round the bend. It shouldn’t be funny but it is because Woody Allen is a biting social critic. He reinterprets Blanche Dubois and A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE with this film that sticks it to all those in the 1% who think that the rest of us have created our own woe in the world today. 


THIS IS THE END
Directed by Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg
Written by Seth Rogan, Evan Goldberg and Jason Stone

Just because actors in Hollywood are rich and live like kings doesn’t make them special. That’s the lesson that James Franco, Seth Rogan and their Tinsel Town cronies all come to realize after the Apocalypse and they’re left waiting for the rapture. This was the most uproarious comedy of the year, yet it wasn’t mindless frat house high jinks. Instead, Rogan and Goldberg shrewdly take the piss out of our celebrity culture by indicting not only the celebrities but the celebrity culture and press that invests too much into everything a Kardashian does when there are so many more important things going on in the world outside L.A.


PRISONERS
Directed by Denis Villenueve
Written by Aaron Guzikowski

Two children are kidnapped on Thanksgiving and not enough is done to find them by the authorities, so macho dad Hugh Jackman takes the law into his own hands by kidnapping the number one suspect. It’s an ugly film about coerced justice and the gloomy look of it was perfectly suited to the story. Everything is ashen, from the stark locations to the gray skies to the distraught faces of its impressive cast (Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis and Melissa Leo). Again, the themes of helplessness and loneliness play throughout this taut and tense thriller, the most disturbing one of the year.

And, for the record, I also must mention that DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, BLACKFISH, ENOUGH SAID, SPRING BREAKERS, STOKER, MAMA, THE GREAT GATSBY, ALL IS LOST, THE BLING RING, BEFORE MIDNIGHT, RUSH, THE BOOK THIEF and ABOUT TIME all struck me as quite special too. 


So, those are my choices. What are yours? And Happy New Year to you, my followers and here’s to the coming year at the Cineplex. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

MY 10 FAVORITE IMAGES FROM 2013 MOVIES

What images from films stick in your head? The chumming Brody’s reaction after first seeing the shark in JAWS? Cary Grant kissing Ingrid Bergman to avoid getting caught discovering the wine cellar secret in NOTORIOUS? The wind scattering the papers after Ewan McGregor is hit by the car at the end of THE GHOST WRITER? There are thousands upon thousands of shots that stick in our heads. These are the 10 that remained mostly in mine from the movies I saw in 2013. (WARNING: There may be some spoilers in here so tread carefully.)


1.) GRAVITY

My favorite movie of the year also contains the single most memorable image for me. It’s of Sandra Bullock, as the endangered astronaut, wriggling out of her confining uniform once she finally makes it safely inside her lunar capsule. She just faced death and destruction in the void of space and now she’s safe (for the time being) in the cramped quarters of her ship. She’s reborn, even circling in a fetal position, shedding her ‘skin’ and revealing the vulnerable human being underneath. In the film by Alfonso Cuaron that is the most stunning visual experience of the year, this one shot was its most startling, symbolic and poetic. 


2.) CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

After his ordeal with the Somali pirates, the brave Captain Phillips is taken below deck for a physical examination. We know that despite his bruises and fatigue, he’s in pretty good shape, considering. But then the shock of what has happened to him washes over Phillips and he starts shaking, sweating and stuttering.  Director Paul Greengrass lets his camera linger on Hanks' Phillips has he breaks down after all that’s happened. And Hanks’ crying is not only some of his finest acting ever, it's a truly cathartic experience for us in the audience too as we were put through the wringer via this edgy, nail-biting thriller.  


3.) THE CONJURING

My favorite horror movie of the year is based on the real-life 70's experiences of ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). In this story, they investigate the disturbing paranormal activity at a family’s farm house. Even when Lorraine goes out to help hang the laundry, the specters are not too far away. As a gust of wind grabs a sheet, it flies away but is stopped as it collides with the clear outline of a ghost's body. It scares the sheet out of Lorraine.  And the audience too. It's one of the best jump-in-your-seat moments in director James Wan's thrill ride.


4.) THE GREAT GATSBY

You’d expect a flamboyant director like Baz Luhrmann to create one show-stopping image after another in something like THE GREAT GATSBY. And he doesn't disappoint. It's a visual feast with superb production design, costumes and cinematography. No image topped his introduction of Gatsby to Nick Carraway, as well as those of us in the audience. Gatsby, amidst fireworks bursting behind him, turns and toasts, welcoming all of us to his extravagant party.


5.) AMERICAN HUSTLE

The best image in this con artist comedy from director David O. Russell is his very first one. He introduces us to Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), the main character, by showing us how utterly flawed a man he is, both physically and mentally. He's a flim-flam man, a scoundrel, and we'll soon find out that his entire life is a sham. Yet he takes such great care to give himself a youthful appearance by orchestrating the greatest and most elaborate comb-over in the history of cinema, that it's both hilarious and heartbreaking. And it instantly bonds us to his side. 


6.) SPRING BREAKERS

A couple of teenager girls run amuck down in Florida during spring break, falling in with Alien (James Franco), a wannabe rapper, pimp and gangster. When Candy & Brit (Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson) agree to assist him in a hit on a fellow dealer, they don ski masks and glow-in-the-dark bikinis for the mission. Sexy? Yes. Silly? Certainly. And not exactly frightening. But then they start shooting up his drug dealing rivals and suddenly they're wolves in micro-mini clothing. It's an audacious moment in Harmony Korine's film that is indeed that the entire time.


 7.) STOKER

In Park Chan-wook's moody thriller, India is a troubled teenager (Mia Wasikowska) that doesn’t know what to think of her visiting uncle. He's insinuated himself into her home, her deceased father's clothing, and even her mother’s bed. Then when India is almost raped by a vicious high schooler, her uncle saves her by breaking the boy’s neck. At home, washing the blood and dirt of the ordeal off of her body, India starts to cry. It seems she's upset but that is not the case. What she is really doing is crying with pleasure as she masturbates to the memory of the kill.  Murder gets her off. And suddenly the film's true villain is revealed. It's the best rug pull in a film this year.


 8.) THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

In this Martin Scorsese film about the over-the-top shenanigans of 80’s era investment brokers, the image of excess that sticks in my mind the most is when Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio, making quite an impression again), high on Quaaludes, loses control of his body and flops around on the floor at a country club. He contorts like a fish fighting for oxygen on an unforgiving dry dock. And as Jordan literally crawls back towards his Ferrari to return home to convalesce, he is quite the pathetic sight to see. DiCaprio gives a stunning, physical performance in this scene and his work in this picture might be his best ever.


9.) BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR

Adele Exarchopoulos gives the performance of the year in the BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR, Abdellatif Kechiche's great French love story. She wears her raw, emotional intensity on her sleeve the entire movie. Her fears, her joy, her sexuality, her depression - they're all totally exposed. She’s as naked emotionally as she often is physically, never more so than when she is dumped by her girlfriend for her betrayal of their relationship. As she walks home, utterly distraught, she cries and quivers with snot sputtering out of her runny nose.  She’s one hot mess. And anyone who’s ever been dumped knows that Exarchopoulos has captured all the angst precisely.


10.) HER

Like the poster, this film is all about Joaquin Phoenix’s face. It's practically a one-man show as he is onscreen alone a majority of the time interacting with his computer operating system (brilliantly voiced by Scarlett Johansson BTW). Phoenix therefore must convey every feeling and emotion he’s experiencing during his interaction and burgeoning love affair with a computer and make us care. That's no easy task, and it could have played as ludicrous. But the fact that Spike Jonze's film is so emotionally moving and poignant speaks volumes about Phoenix's talent. His face is the show and it's incredible to me that he's not considered a lock for a Best Actor Oscar nomination. 


So, what images from this year's movies are sticking in your head? Let me know what really made an impression on you and let's keep the conversation going. And, as always, thanks so much for following this blog.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

THE BEST IN HORROR 2013

With just days before the end of 2013, it’s time to reflect back on the best in horror this year. And as the Chicago Examiner's horror critic, I saw a lot and overall, it was a pretty good year. There were exceptional frighteners to be found on the big screen, the small screen, and yes, even on Smart phone screens. Here then, are my picks for the ten best of the genre this year.

“The Conjuring”
The scariest and most deftly told tale of terror at the Cineplex this year was “The Conjuring”. Insidiously directed by James Wan, this haunted house saga earned its scares through the sharply focused screenplay by Chris Hayes and Carey Hayes that dwelled upon believable dread rather than cheap scares (http://exm.nr/JAGmX0). Ghostbusters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) investigate the ghostly activity in a 1970’s farmhouse that leads to dozens of thrills, chills and a demonic possession that’s truly terrifying because it’s so believable. The Warrens conducted many paranormal investigations, including the Amityville Horror case, and here’s hoping that the potential franchise lives up to this sublime starter.

“Hannibal”
What new things could possibly be done with the story of Hannibal Lecter to keep enthralling horror audiences? How about a TV series prequel that serves up the cannibalistic character's origins? As told by show-runner Bryan Fuller, it was not only the highpoint of horror on television this year but it was the best done horror I saw anywhere in 2013 (http://exm.nr/19uO7rE). Focusing on the aftermath of the serial killer’s crimes, including the emotional effects on his FBI cronies, this NBC show was an intricate game of psychological cat & mouse.  Filled with a sublime cast playing rich characters (including leads Hugh Dancy as profiler Will Graham and Mads Mikkelsen as the title character), it also contained some of the best production design and cinematography ever in the medium. And it sustained a taut sense of dread that few movies could ever muster. (And all this with commercial breaks!)

“Stoker”
Director Chan-wook Park plays in the world of Alfred Hitchcock with his film about a strange uncle (Matthew Goode) who insinuates himself into his brother’s family and seduces both the mother and daughter (Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska, respectively). The uncle is a sociopath and his hold on the troubled teen raises the question of whether evil comes by nature or nurture (http://exm.nr/1bvcDFF). It's smart, sexy, and uncompromising in its darkness. And the scene where Wasikowska showers after partaking in a murder remains one of the most chilling scenes in any genre movie this year.

“iPoe Collection Volume 2”
Edgar Allan Poe has seldom been successfully transferred to any screen. (2012’s “The Raven” starring John Cusack had noble intentions but ended up conjuring more Eli Roth than Poe.) Leave it to Creatividad to create a perfect screen adaptation with their iPhone app (http://exm.nr/1inaF2k). It showcased three of the most famous of Poe’s prose in 2012, and this year’s second volume was even a greater success. Brought to life through the animated illustrations by the brilliant David Garcia Fores, it made your Chicago Horror Examiner wonder if all further Poe adaptations for any screen shouldn’t be animated as well.

“Mama”
Jessica Chastain dazzled in early 2013 with the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” and again with her Emo girl turned reluctant mom in “Mama”. She and her boyfriend take in his brother’s long-lost-in-the-wilderness girls and attempt to give them a stable home. That’s difficult when a shrieking banshee follows the girls everywhere. This ghost story never quite went where you expected it to go, starting with the casting of Chastain in such a dark role, and the payoff was stellar as this unpredictable tale kept audiences, including yours truly, on the edges of their seats. 

“You’re Next”
Two home invasion stories hit Cineplexes this autumn – the barely watchable “The Purge” and “You’re Next”, a cheeky black comedy about a dysfunctional family battling intruders outside and jealous siblings inside. Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett get lots of credit for keeping the twists coming and coming here. And they also deserve plaudits for finding a good role for the beautiful Barbara Crampton to return to the genre in. Here's hoping we see more from all of these terrific talents.

“Bates Motel”
Vera Farmiga had a banner year starring in “The Conjuring” and this A & E television series about the origins of Norman Bates and his mother (http://exm.nr/1bvffmR).  Given a modern update, the show's rewrite kept the legendary characters from “Psycho” both fresh and yet familiar. Freddie Highmore made for a sweet and sympathetic Norman as a teen, and Farmiga made us understand the man and monster he'd soon become from her excessive smothering. And the supporting cast made a terrific impression too, from Max Therioit as Norma's other son Max to Nestor Carbonell as the corrupt sheriff to the effervescent Emma Cooke as Norman's compassionate school mate. The second season starts in March 2014, so do check in, won't you?

“Maniac”
Relate to a serial killer with more sexual hang-ups than Norman Bates? Yes, if it’s this shrewdly told remake of the 1980’s grindhouse classic (http://exm.nr/1gbHxbd). Director Franck Khalhoun tells this film's story from the POV of the deranged young man Frank Zito (Elijah Wood, about a million miles from Middle Earth here). We see everything he sees, from the attractive women he wants to love more than covet, to the boredom he faces when not prowling the night looking for escape. This film doesn’t ask us to sympathize with such a maniac, only to understand how such a twisted soul sees the world. It’s hard to watch, true, but impossible to look away from.

“Contracted”
Expertly made by writer/director Eric England, despite an indie budget, this frightening film put bigger-budgeted fare to shame. A young woman (Najarra Townsend), coming off a break-up, has sex with a stranger she meets at a party. Then, stranger and stranger things start happening to her. Her body starts to crumble due to a monstrous STD and along with it, so goes her sanity and her world of order. It’s a savage black comedy dissing the lies we all tell ourselves and each other. And the fact that it takes place in a self-absorbed LA makes the pungent commentary all the richer.

“Dracula”
Another TV re-imagining like “Hannibal” and “Bates Motel”, NBC’s vampire saga rewrites almost all the clichĂ©s of Bram Stoker’s oft-told tale. And miraculously, the results are spectacular and a must-see. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays the count in Victorian England out for revenge against the Masonic-like order that destroyed his life centuries earlier. The reworked narrative here challenges our notions of who’s who in the “Dracula” oeuvre as Van Helsing is an ally and Renfield is an African-American lawyer this time out. And most surprising of all is how Dracula’s bite has nothing on the teeth of the elite 1 % he’s up against in this richly rewarding new take on the oldest of frighteners.

Those are my ten best in horror for 2013 - six movies, three TV shows and one phone app. What are yours? Some other year ends lists are coming so stay tuned. 

And Happy New Year to all my followers and, of course, happy haunts too!

Monday, December 16, 2013

WHEN TV AND MOVIE CHARACTERS JUMP THE SHARK

We’ve all heard the term ‘that show has jumped the shark’. It comes from the notorious episode late in the run of HAPPY DAYS where Fonzie performed in a water ski stunt show, still wearing his famous leather jacket, and jumped over a man-eating shark. The show, and the tough biker character, never recovered from that ludicrous storyline. The legacies were tarnished immediately and continue to be by the term ‘jumped the shark’, which is now applied to similar lapses in storytelling taste and judgment from Hollywood.
Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in the third season finale of HOMELAND
And last night, the Showtime TV series HOMELAND almost jumped the shark. And for my money, its central character Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) actually did. Showtime has had a huge problem with this sort of thing before, with their lead characters doing 180’s and becoming virtually unrecognizable. That’s what happened with serial killer DEXTER in its 5th season. He stopped being the murderer driven by bloodlust and turned into a cuddly ‘super dad’. His ‘jump the shark’ moment happened when the show’s writers wrapped up the Trinity Killer narrative and chose to let Dexter (Michael C. Hall) escape scot-free without any real fallout from that bloodbath.

The Carrie character's 180 on HOMELAND is as unfortunate. She’s gone from cold, calculating CIA analyst to silly schoolgirl crushing over a bad boy. What happened to the shrewd government operative that was so suspicious of returning war hero Brody? She knew in her gut that he'd been turned by Al Qaeda and hell, she was right. And even after she slept with him midway through season one, it still didn’t keep her from acting like a dog with a bone to expose him as he was about to blow up the Vice President in a CIA bunker. She could see the forest for the trees about Brody (Damian Lewis) when few others could.

Since then though, Carrie continually has taken Brody’s side, time and time again, even though he’s given her no reason to believe in him. His actions have been all over the map, literally and figuratively, and he’s betrayed his country more than once. He's also screwed over his wife and kids. And Carrie too. Repeatedly. Oh, and he killed the Vice President eventually as well, by inducing a heart attack when he cut off the man's pacemaker. So why did the writers continually ask us to root for Brody along the way and to cheer Carrie's constant defense of him? Her blind allegiance to him over cause and country has turned this once sharp and brilliant drama into a dithering soap opera.
Damian Lewis as Brody in season three of HOMELAND
And lest we forget, because the writers of the show certainly have, the whole driver of Carrie’s actions and the thrust of the series from the start was supposed to be her guilt over not stopping 9-11 from happening. It’s there in the credits every week, for heaven’s sake. So what happened to all that? A career CIA analyst is spun into a tizzy by one or two rolls in the hay with a dangerous double agent and somehow that makes sloppy storytelling acceptable? The sex with him is so astounding that it encourages a character to ignore everything else about her job, including direct orders from her boss Saul (Mandy Patinkin), as well as foreign policy moves given to her at behest of the President? How absurd a character is this that we’re supposed to be investing in?

And then last night (SPOILER WARNING) before Brody was going to be executed, he asked Carrie for one last thing and that was to not attend his public hanging. So what does Carrie do? She defies his request. She not only appeared at the early morning spectacle but she rather conspicuously climbed the surrounding chain link fence to scream out his name once last time so they could make eye contact before he dies. This is what a supposedly trustworthy CIA operative who’s designated as the point person on the ground there would do? That logic is patently absurd.

Carrie put everything in jeopardy – the mission, the embedded spy in the Iranian government, our nation's foreign policy – all for one last, longing look into Brody’s baby blues? And then four months later, she’s rewarded for her outrageous behavior by being promoted to run the whole Istanbul station. Do the writers have nothing but contempt for their audience as well as for their characters?
Bruce Willis in A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD
Of course, it’s not a whole lot better in the movie world these days either. Take the dumb mistakes made in the current entry in the DIE HARD franchise. This year’s fifth installment was utterly unwatchable as A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD turned the once vulnerable and relatable Detective John McClane into a virtually unstoppable Rambo. You’ll remember in the first film McClane was a ‘regular guy’ cop from New York visiting his estranged wife and kids for Christmas in LA. While at her office party, the high-rise was taken over by terrorists and McClane was the hostages' only hope. As he battled to save them and take out the baddies, he was all alone and stressed out about it. He even cried over his dilemma. And McClane got injured too, time and time again, leaping from one narrow escape to the next. He famously cut his feet to ribbons fighting against those Euro-trash villains as he battled them in the destroyed office space, and we in the audience empathized with his every agonizing step along the way.

But now, he acts like every other Bruce Willis action hero – squinting dismissively, whispering his acerbic dialogue like it’s all in a day’s work, throwing himself into harm’s way with nary a care. And walking away with little more than scratches. McClane is too cool for school now and thus, he’s become a bore. The average man has become Superman and the character and franchise have jumped the shark. (Oh, and where is McClane’s hair? Must every Willis action role now be played completely bald?)

There are dozens of examples of this kind of character betrayal in movie franchises. You can see it in everything from Freddy Krueger being turned into a laughable goon battling Jason Voorhees in the umpteenth NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET to the Jigsaw killer from SAW offing innocent cops when he was supposed to be taking out bad guys who had it coming. Thank God James Bond at least has remained almost wholly consistent to Ian Fleming’s vision. Bond may be a ruthless assassin and a heavy-drinking womanizer, but at least we know where he stands.
The Luke and Laura wedding on GENERAL HOSPITAL in 1983
TV may be the worst culprit for character shark jumping as series go on for years and years too long. And in doing so, very often these characters evolve to a point where they no longer resemble their original selves. Look at how sympathetic original villain Margaret Houlihan turned out to be by the later seasons of M*A*S*H, crying over not being invited to coffee by her fellow nurses. Paulie Walnuts started out on THE SOPRANOS in 1999 as a cold killer but was mostly the comic relief by its 2007th season. Carlos, Gabby’s husband on DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, went from hapless husband to crime boss, even though he was hardly the Walter White type. Perhaps the most notorious of all was the transition of Luke Spencer from Laura’s rapist on GENERAL HOSPITAL to the love of her life a year later. They went on to become soap’s most popular couple in the history of the medium. Sometimes audiences can be too accepting.

And it is all about keeping the audience, I grant you, so it's a tough gig. And keeping that fickle lot's attention when their itchy trigger finger is always hovering a centimeter away from switching channels on the remote is no easy task. And the longer a TV series or movie franchise goes on, the harder it is to keep things fresh. But hey, that’s the challenge to filmmakers and showrunners. Sorry guys, it's what you signed up for so be more demanding of yourselves and your work. Characters need to stay true to themselves, and the audience. When HOMELAND makes as many miscalculations with Carrie as it did this season, it turns a sharp character into a laughable caricature, and a once sterling drama into near farce.
Mandy Patinkin, Claire Danes and Damian Lewis in HOMELAND
At least now with Brody dead and gone, there is some real hope for the show again. Let's hope that Carrie will return to focusing her efforts on finding and fighting terrorists. Although the fact that she’s about to deliver Brody’s baby gives me pause. It's too easy to imagine her going from clingy, crazy girlfriend to manic baby mama, isn't it? Terror, indeed.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

ALISTAIR SIM'S SCROOGE IN 'A CHRISTMAS CAROL' DELIVERS A VERY SCARY CHRISTMAS

Original caricature of Alistair Sim as Scrooge in 1951's A CHRISTMAS CAROL (copyright 2011 by Jeff York)
‘Tis the season for holiday entertainment, with multiple showings of everything from TV’s cartoon classic THE GRINCH WHO STOLE CHRISTMAS to Richard Curtis’ popular LOVE, ACTUALLY. I for one could do without this weekend’s repeat of NBC’s THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE (http://exm.nr/1blIvjU) but its 18 million viewers ensured another airing and it's status as a potential new holiday perennial. Still, there’s one holiday classic you may have to work a bit harder to find these days. It’s the 1951 version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL starring Alistair Sim as cinema’s most definitive Scrooge. It's not played on TV nearly as often these days and its dark nature may be the reason. It’s a bitter cookie in a world of craven holiday sweetness.

Make no mistake about it, this version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL is very much a horror movie too. After all, the Charles Dickens classic is a ghost story. And for this 1951 take on the material, director Brian Desmond Hurst wisely shot screenwriter Noel Langley’s cryptic adaptation as if he was shooting a film noir thriller. Throughout, his film is sinister and foreboding. And he fills his screen with enough dark shadows and terrifying scenes to rival any of Universal Studios’ greatest monster movies.
Michael Hordern as Marley's Ghost in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1951)
You can see Hurst’s genre leanings when he introduces Marley’s ghost. The dead-as-a-doornail miser is heard dragging his heavy chains along the floorboards towards Scrooge’s bedroom and an intimidating weight of the world is evident in those lock boxes. Accompanying them is the ominous brass of composer John Addinsell’s terrorizing score. And when Marley’s spectral visage finally does appear, actor Michael Hordern howls in pain the whole time, agonizing in his atonement for his worldly sins. No Wolfman or Freddy Krueger could compare!

The horrors continue in set piece after terrifying set piece. We discover the skeletal children ‘Ignorance’ and ‘Want’ hidden under the Ghost of Christmas Present’s robes. Deathbeds show up in harrowing abundance, with cast members dropping like flies. And there are eerie visits to gravesites, poverty-stricken hollows, and treacherous streets that would make Jack the Ripper green with envy.

Perhaps this version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL is simply too disturbing for audiences now hooked on the lighter stories of Rudolph and Frosty, yet it’s exactly how Dickens intended things to be. He knew stern lessons were necessary in this overly indulgent season of gifts, parties and eggnog. Dickens wanted us to remember that the true meaning of Christmas doesn’t come from a store. It’s about good will towards our fellow man. Of course Theodore Geisel, Charles M. Schultz and Frank Capra knew this as well, and their Christmas classics contain similar serious messages.
Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1951)
Ironically, an actor beloved for his comical performances turned into the most memorable and serious of Scrooges. Alistair Sim is the single greatest reason that this 1951 British production endures as the version that bests all others. His Scrooge is one of the most fascinating and full-bodied portrayals ever put on screen and it’s amazing considering how joyous a performer Sim usually was in his other roles (http://bit.ly/1deg71A). Yet his take on Scrooge is straight, complex and eminently relatable even when he’s behaving monstrously. He’s a haunted man, battling ghosts from his past long before any specters show up 'round the stroke of midnight.

Sim doesn’t play Ebenezer as a grumpy skinflint, a crotchety caricature that makes for an easy transformation to a giddy old man. Instead, his big eyes and hound dog face reflect all the bad luck and loss of love Scrooge has encountered in his life, from his childhood days to his lonely, friendless existence as a senior citizen. Why, this social miscreant even rejects another helping of bread at a pub, probably having more to do with not wanting to converse with the waiter than being charged extra for it. 

And Durst and Langley wisely embellished Scrooge’s backstory with even more telling details like that. We learn about Scrooge's problems with his judgmental father, his guilt over his sister's death, and his callous jilting of his fiancĂ© in favor of a better paycheck. Dickens only implied such things in his original text, but they're placed in the foreground here. Those enhancements to the narrative helped add many shades of gray to this exceptional black and white film. It’s what separates the better horror films out there as well. Monsters rarely are wholly evil. And every bad guy was once a kid who likely never enjoyed a proper childhood.   

Thus, Scrooge’s motivations are revelatory in an applied psychology sort of way, and it makes this film version incredibly modern even though it’s over sixty years old. And there are more modern parallels to be discovered as well. The Victorian London of the 1840’s isn’t all that different from the economic imbalance we’re facing in our world now. And Scrooge’s indifference to the sick and needy can easily be read as comparable to the dismissive attitudes some have today towards those requiring government assistance and affordable healthcare.
Indeed, Dickens’ ghost story and this 1951 frightener both recognized that the true horrors in the world reside in the wrongs man inflicts upon his fellow man. And yet despite such dark themes in a season known for its excess of holiday lights, they are entirely appropriate. After all, the Holy Birth was intended to save mankind from itself, wasn’t it?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE CARRIE UNDERWOOD?

NBC’s labored version of “The Sound of Music” performed Thursday night proved many things. First, the term ‘live’ couldn’t have been any less appropriate for this D.O.A. production. Two, the movie version is far, far, far superior to the stage version. (Thank you, Ernest Lehman for your brilliant screenplay adaptation that sharpened the material and omitted the duller parts.) And three, Carrie Underwood is a good singer but not much of an actress.

And I couldn’t help but realize as Underwood’s performance lurched over the course of the painfully long three hours, that there will never be another talent like Julie Andrews. Has there ever been anyone, before or since, who had such range, as a singer, dancer and actress –all rolled into one glorious performer? Quick, name another actress who could play zany and serious? Posh and Cockney? A woman and a man? Often within a whisker of each other? Julie Andrews was truly a one-of-a-kind performer.

And after watching Underwood’s virtually humorless performance as Maria von Trapp, I realized how funny Andrews was in the role. Her willingness to look silly made the novelty number “The Lonely Goatherd” one of the absolute highlights of the movie. And she was even cuter than those adorable Bil Baird marionettes.

Seeing the stilted production that NBC ambitiously laid out for TV audiences tonight made me keenly aware of how Maria really is almost a musical comedy Lear or Loman. It’s a tough role, requiring charming children one moment and staring down Nazis the next. And try as she might, Carrie Underwood just wasn’t up to the task. Her Maria was merely competent; competent in the way the most charming cheerleader would play her in a high school production. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t ever going to even touch the hem of Andrews’ curtained dress.

The inadequacy of this Maria and this version of “The Sound of Music” were as clear as Andrews’ five-octave range. When Maria is supposed to be able to charm everyone from captains to nuns, and here Laura Benanti’s Countess is eminently more alluring, all hopes are lost. (Speaking of hope, after Benanti and Christian Borle nailed their “How Can Love Survive” number I was hoping that she and Underwood would switch parts during commercial!)

Poor Carrie Underwood. She tried but there was just too little to idolize. But then who could climb the mountain that was Andrews’ Maria? She not only sold a hoary lyric like “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could”, she melted the stony iceberg that was Christopher Plummer! Thus, Andrews’ Maria shall forever remain one of my favorite things.