Sunday, December 30, 2012


It’s been two years since I’ve been writing The Establishing Shot and I appreciate my followers and anyone who visits here. It’s been a lot of fun and we will continue to share thoughts on the movies together. It’s always great to hear from you, so please keep posting! As is a tradition here since my first essay posted, it’s that time of year for me to pick my favorite images from the year’s movies. And while I have yet to see ZERO DARK THIRTY or AMOUR because they haven’t opened in Chicago yet, I pick these 10 shots based on what I was able to see. (NOTE: Be warned, there may be spoilers.)
In one of the year’s best movies, there are any number of great images: Tommy Lee Jones getting in bed with S. Epatha Merkerson; James Spader trying to retrieve his folder from a man about to shoot him; heck, any time director Steven Spielberg focuses his camera on Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president is a great image. It’s one of the greatest performances of all time and Spielberg is confident enough to just fill the frame with his face. Towards the end, he fills it with his back. Lincoln walks away from the camera, off to the theater. In that moment, he’s walking into history after ending slavery and the Civil War, and for practical purposes, exiting the picture. It’s a moving, triumphant and heartbreaking image, and it’s my favorite of the year.

Marion Cotillard gives one of the year’s best performances as a trainer of killer Orcas at an amusement park who suffers the loss of her legs below the knees from a horrible accident during a show. With the help of prosthetics, she is able to walk again. She returns to the park and to the tank to make peace with her attacker. Like a devoted and docile pet, the whale finds her on the other side of the glass and dutifully follows her hand signals. What it really signals is that her character has started to regain control of her body and her environment. It’s as poetic an image as any in a movie in some time.

Before the feature presentation of WRECK-IT RALPH, Disney showcases the animated short PAPERMAN. In it, an office worker has a chance encounter with a comely young woman at the train stop and falls head over heels for her. Through a series of fits and starts, mostly involving errant paper airplanes, the man tries to reconnect with her. None of it would work if those first seconds of their meeting weren’t so entrancing. But indeed those moments are and this freeze frame shows two good people waiting for the train, and for their love lives to start.
Tim Burton references a lot of classic horror movies in his affectionate, animated tale about a boy who brings back his dearly departed dog. Sparky is appropriately named as a surge of electricity reanimates him in a way that Mary Shelley would approve. And his re-emergence into the town invigorates everyone, including the poodle next door. She’s always been attracted to Sparky and when she kisses him in his new condition, the sparks fly. And a current of electricity shocks a white streak into her poodle poof. It’s a hair-raising reference to Elsa Lancaster as James Whale’s title character in THE BRIDE OF FRANKESTEIN. And it’s one of the adorable reasons that FRANKENWEENIE is the year’s best animated feature.

The greatest audience-rousing moment in any movie this year is from 2012’s biggest moneymaker. It’s when the Hulk has had enough of the terror and preening of Loki, the ‘god’ from another planet trying to take over earth. Loki taunts the Hulk and it’s never a good idea to make the Hulk angry. He picks up Loki and smashes him to and fro like a rag doll. The audience whooped and hollered like a winning touchdown had been scored, and in some ways it had what with the Hulk metaphorically ‘spiking the ball’.

In Woody Allen’s valentine to the Italian city, he tells a number of tales of love including one of mistaken identity. A naïve young man ventures into the big city and gets separated from his new bride and ends up with a hooker at his door who thinks he’s her client. The incredible Penelope Cruz plays the prostitute and she crawls onto his bed purring, “I am here to fulfill your dreams.” Who could say no to that Penny for your thoughts?

The movie trailer gives it away and robs it of some of its impact, but nonetheless when Denzel Washington turns the plane upside down to avoid crashing, the shot sticks in the mind both for its audaciousness as well as for it’s totally believable CGI execution. It also serves as a great metaphor for how Washington’s plucky act of courage will soon turn his world upside down in this harrowing drama.

Ethan Hawke plays a desperate writer who moves his family into the home where a family was massacred to be inspired. He’s the true monster in this monster movie. And yet, he holds our sympathies. Why? Two reasons - the first being that Hawke is such a good actor he makes this awful man empathetic. And the second reason must go to director Scott Derrickson who has the good sense to let Hawke’s expressions convey most of the horrors he sees throughout the thriller.

Speaking of horror, this year had a number of terrific entries into the genre, including two animated greats. In addition to FRANKENWEENIE, there was PARANORMAN, the story of a boy who sees dead people and must save his town from their infiltration. One of the best images in the movie is its character design satirizing the teens that always end up at the center of so many horror films. The designs are by Travis Knight, Heidi Smith and directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell, and they are a hilarious joy each and every frame.

John Hawkes plays a handicapped man who must spend time in an iron lung to survive. Knowing his days are short, he decides to lose his virginity with the help of a sex surrogate. Helen Hunt plays her and her open, naturalistic performance is complemented by her casual nudity. Most films pull their punch when it comes to such things, but not this one. This is the moment where Hunt undresses and you realize this movie is going to be frank and naked. And it’s a wonderful endorsement of life, love and the human body.

Well, those are my favorite images from the year’s films. What sticks in your mind? Plenty of these are still showing in theaters, or will be re-released for awards season soon, so check them out and revel in some of the best of 2012.

Saturday, December 22, 2012


While nothing in fictional frights can compete with the real life horrors that took place in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut this past year, there were still plenty of scares worth lauding. Thus, here are the highlights in horror, on the big screen and one on the small screen, that I picked in my role as the Chicago Horror Movie Examiner for 2012. (

The best horror movie this year was not only an all-family animated film, but it was one of the sweetest love stories of 2012 as well. Director Tim Burton revisited his famous short from 20 years ago and turned it into a full-length feature and a stop-motion wonder. School boy Victor loves his dog Sparky so much that he brings his deceased pet back to life after a car accident with the help of well, sparks, as in a lot of electricity. It’s an endearing riff on FRANKENSTEIN, shot in black & white, as Sparky’s return throws the whole town into a tizzy. And in doing so, Burton cleverly lampoons societal norms, the mob mentality, schoolyard bullying, and at least half a dozen horror movies. Written by Burton, Leonard Ripps and John August, FRANKENWEENIE is darkly witty and yes, more than a bit scary. But it’s largest body part, in a film filled with them, is its huge heart. (My original review:
Two animated movies on a best horror list? Yes, and I’d put them both on my regular Best in Film list too. PARANORMAN, written by Chris Butler and directed by Butler and Sam Fell, is the story of a boy named Norman who is anything but normal. He sees dead people everywhere and no one believes in his ‘sixth sense.’ But when his hometown becomes overrun with zombies and a vengeful ghost, only Norman sees what is happening, literally and figuratively. And like FRANKENWEENIE there is a sensitivity and sweetness to it. And the way the filmmakers here tweak teenagers and family politics is as biting as anything John Hughes ever did. (My original review:

What looked like a cliché from the trailer, with a group of college friends running from a maniac in the woods, turned out to be just that as well as an exceedingly clever satire of such horror clichés. The savvy script is by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, and Goddard directs it with knowingness as well. The films works as a thriller and a political commentary, suggesting that violence has become so commonplace in our society that it’s become some sort of ersatz policy. This movie’s relevance will only increase after what happened in Sandy Hook last week. This movie is not only one of 2012’s best but it’s a definitive statement of the times we live in. (My original review:

This eerie film, written by Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill, and directed by Derrickson, inexplicably bombed at the box office this autumn. I think it’s because the movie’s message was just a little too hard for filmgoers to stomach. That message? Few monsters compare to man. As I’ve steadfastly maintained, the human is always much scarier than the inhuman. And here, the all-too mortal character that Ethan Hawke plays is an utterly despicable man, blinded by his trembling insecurity and raging ego. He plays a true crime writer so desperate for success that he moves his family into the house where a family was murdered so that he will be inspired as he writes about it. Of course it isn’t long before he starts seeing all kinds of ghosts and yet he refuses to move out. His sins made SINISTER by far the scariest movie I saw all year. (My original review:
Sure, it glosses over much of the truth of the Master of Suspense’s real life. And it ignores many of the fascinating anecdotes about the making of the classic horror film PSYCHO. Still, it’s a movie biography about history’s greatest film director, and you’ve got to love that, right? Anthony Hopkins plays Hitch with the right balance of imitation and interpretation while Helen Mirren shines in the role of his plucky wife Alma. It’s an odd and affectionate love story, written with cheeky humor by John J. McLaughlin and directed with panache by Sacha Gervasi. I enjoyed every frame of it. (My original review:
Best Actor – Ethan Hawke in SINISTER
On screen virtually the whole time, Hawke played his forlorn writer with palpable panic. When he discovers a box full of home movies that turn out to be snuff films, Hawke’s face ran the gamut of shock, awe, repulsion, fascination and elation, sometimes all in the same scene. As he digs deeper into the truth behind the serial murders, he loses his grip on reality and Hawke lets us understand every quaking moment of his descent all too well. It’s a bravura turn that is easily the best lead male performance in a horror movie this year.

Best Actress - Jennifer Carpenter in DEXTER (Showtime)
Helen Mirren was great in HITCHCOCK, but for me, even the esteemed Dame Mirren did not equal the amazing performance by Jennifer Carpenter on the horror TV series DEXTER this year. And Carpenter better finally get an Emmy nomination for this sterling turn. In the seventh season of Showtime’s most popular series, Deb discovered that her stepbrother is a serial killer and then decided to help him cover up the crimes. She used to be the moral backbone of the show but now her character has morphed into a terrifying enabler. Deb’s frustration and sorrow, as she spiraled downward, was a marvel to watch. And Carpenter aced every single moment.

Best Supporting Actor – Steve Berens in THE ABC'S OF DEATH
Doing a short horror film for each of the 26 letters of the alphabet all but guaranteed an uneven movie, and THE ABC'S OF DEATH was certainly that. However, the great segments really stood out, most notably D IS FOR DOGFIGHT. Written and directed by Marcel Sarmiento, it’s a riveting mini-masterpiece. And in it, Steve Berens gave an incredibly intense performance that I think is the best supporting one in a horror movie this year. He plays a homeless man kidnapped and forced to fight a vicious dog in a battle to the death in front of sneering gamblers. He doesn’t want to fight but knows he’ll die one way or the other. The shame, fear and courage rippling across Berens’ horrified face were absolutely palpable. And acting isn’t even his main vocation - his day job is that of an animal trainer, one of Hollywood’s most sought after for 30 years! (He also trained the dog he has to ‘fight’ against here, naturally.)

Best Supporting Actress – Hannah Fierman in V/H/S
V/H/S is another anthology horror movie with some segments far better than others. The short film that worked best in it was entitled AMATEUR NIGHT and it concerned three frat boys out cruising chicks and videotaping their exploits. They pick up two girls and one, Lily, is a spooky looker played by Hannah Fierman. She seems naïve at first, whispering only “I like you.” Soon after though, she reveals herself to be a monster out hunting prey and the horn dogs are her next victims. Fierman is utterly terrifying in the role, with her big, dark eyes and her feral body language. She, and her character Lily, a half vampire/half winged beast, deserve their own franchise!

Well, fellow horror aficionados, those are my picks for the highlights of onscreen horror in 2012. I’ll try to forget the dogs like SILENT HILL: REVELATION 3D and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4, and prefer to remember Sparky and his ilk in FRANKENWEENIE. And here’s to the New Year and even better haunts in store, just hopefully all up there on the screen. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012


It’s hard to think about Christmas when last week’s events in Connecticut are still so fresh in our minds. Yet Xmas is just days away now and if you’re looking for some holiday cheer, as well as some last minute stocking stuffers, you should grab the autobiography by Uggie the dog. He’s the canine actor who stole scenes and hearts in last year’s Oscar-winning Best Picture THE ARTIST. The name of the book is Uggie: My Story and it’s an uplifting story about making it in Hollywood. Just the kind of cheer we sorely need right now.
Uggie's paws were immortalized in cement at Grauman's Chinese Theater this year. The first dog ever to do so!

Uggie wrote his story, ‘as barked to’ Wendy Holden, and it’s not only a fascinating tail-all about the ins and outs of Tinseltown, but it’s also a ringing endorsement of pet adoption. The loving family headed by famed animal trainer Omar von Muller got Uggie when his previous parents were about to take him to the pound. Uggie was a rambunctious Jack Russell Terrier who was quite the little Dickens, but unconditional love and patience turned Uggie into not only a lovable and sweet-natured pet but a naturally gifted performer who went on to become one of the most sought after dogs in show business.
Uggie at one of his book signings with his family - Terry, Omar and Mercy von Muller.

One look at the movie THE ARTIST and you can see why Uggie struck such a chord with audiences. He had a huge and vital role in the movie, playing the onscreen partner and off-screen best friend of silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). Uggie performed all the incredible scenes that were required of him with amazing aplomb. He handled comedy, drama, tragedy, and lots of stunts too. His standout scenes in the film are when he saves George from a fire, and when he pleads for the grief-stricken George to not commit suicide. The panic in Uggie in those scenes is palpable, and brought me to tears. His work was so profound it garnered serious Oscar consideration for him as supporting actor last year. The Academy didn't, ahem, bite, but Uggie had already won a special acting award at Cannes when THE ARTIST premiered there. And he won a slew of other awards after too, including the Golden Collar for best performance by an animal in a 2011 film.
Uggie performing with Jean Dujardin in the Oscar-winning Best Picture THE ARTIST (2011).

The behind-the-scenes of the making of THE ARTIST are some of the highlights in his book. Uggie tells about how he and Jean trained together, with the help of a pocket full of sausages to ‘reward’ Uggie for hitting his marks and knowing his lines. (All actors should be that compliant!) And Uggie tells about the journey from the audition process to filming to the press junkets and award shows where he became the toast of the town. It's a fascinating story, one that has turned the book into a bestseller. He's a sensation, and Uggie has quite the audience following him. He tweets and writes on Facebook every day, and on Facebook alone he has over 25,000 fans -- like me!

In the book, Uggie displays some cheeky wit, including some playful dissing of the various co-stars and celebrities he’s encountered. He dedicates his bio to Reese Witherspoon, his leading lady from WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, and writes of her, “I adored her. On or off screen, the atmosphere between us was electrically charged. Recently divorced with two small children, Miss W was surely in need of a new leading man in her life?”
Uggie showing WATER FOR ELEPHANTS co-star Reese Witherspoon that he's a better kisser than Robert Pattinson.

It’s a fun read, full of mock Hollywood brio on Uggie’s part, as when he ponders the popularity of Robert Pattinson. He can’t understand why, considering the actor doesn’t skateboard nearly as well as he does. Uggie also tells about his encounters with Tinseltown hotties on the red carpet, all clamoring for hugs and nuzzles, including Katy Perry. Of her Uggie quips, “She kissed a dog, and she liked it.”

And the book is touching too. Uggie writes candidly about his behavioral problems and how he went from being an unlikable problem pooch to the most beloved canine on the planet. The family of Omar and Mercy provided a truly loving home, one full of patience and physical affection, that really made Uggie feel wanted and at ease in his environment. It turned his trajectory from the pound to the stars. And it’s a moving story that heartily encourages pet adoption. In fact, Uggie’s book tour has been utilized to promote it because animal shelters are too crowded with dogs and cats all needing a good home. If Uggie can change, so can any animal. His message is all it takes is a little training and a lotta love.
Uggie on Oscar night with Best Actor winner and co-star Jean Dujardin.

Uggie is retiring now. He’s 10 and that’s getting up there in dog years, so he’s going out on top, capping his sterling career with a delightful biography that I cherished. I can’t think of a better message for the Christmas season than Uggie’s story of love and family. For any pet owner, or movie fan, Uggie: My Story is a must-read. Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 16, 2012


In addition to writing this movie blog, I am one of the film critics for the Examiner online, specializing in writing about horror. And I was going to write my year end review of the best in horror, but right now it’s hard to think of fictional ones when the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting is stuck in my mind. Made-up scares can’t compete with such a real life nightmare.

The tragedy in Connecticut on Friday eclipses any frights infiltrated by the likes of a vampire, werewolf or bogeyman. Horror movies aren’t everyone’s cup o’ tea, but they’re designed to be entertaining even if they make us cower. What happened in that school is terror beyond the imagination. Freddy Krueger’s warped mind could not conjure a worse narrative. And the real life devastation of what happened in Connecticut is more palpable than any alien attack or creature from a black lagoon. Movie horror seems almost quaint in comparison, even the goriest of torture porn like the SAW and HOSTEL franchises pales next to it.

The horror movies that have always stuck with me the most are those where the villain is man, not a made-up monster. Showing the evils lurking inside of mere mortals terrifies me more than a dozen James Cameron ALIENS. (And it’s why most of the best frights I’ve experienced have come from the more mortal characters: And the murderer at Sandy Hook reminds me of some of those cold, brutal monsters like Anton Chigurh in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN or John Doe from SEVEN. But their over-the-top crimes in those fictional works cannot compete with what Adam Lanza did this past week, mowing down children and their teachers with his semi-automatic weapons.

When I was young, I saw the TV-movie HELTER SKELTER about the Tate-LaBianca killings perpetrated by the Charles Manson cult. It shook me to my core and gave me nightmares for weeks. Years later, in my adult years, the real crime scene photos of those events in 1969 Los Angeles were released and the reality of them was far more disturbing than Hollywood’s dramatization. I realized then that the HELTER SKELTER filmmakers edited the portrayal of the murders of Sharon Tate and her friends to be impactful, yet the scenes didn’t linger on the violence. However, when I viewed the actual crime scene pictures, my eyes were not able to avert the worst parts. The same is now true with those awful images coming out of Connecticut. I just hope that the crime scene photos from this tragedy do not go public.

What I do hope becomes public is some action that will work to truly curb these all too frequent events from happening. Would new legislation banning assault weapons be such an endangerment to the NRA’s principles or their interpretation of the 2nd amendment? I don’t think so. Why anyone other than the military needs to ever get their hands on a semi-automatic or automatic weapon is beyond me. I also hope that Sandy Hook and all the other mass killing tragedies of the past few years inspire legislators to support research into deeper studies of mental illness, rage and depression. And that this latest event gets politicians to stop griping about funding proper healthcare in the coming year.

I also hope that the entertainment world examines its predilection to glamorize violence and its excesses. Amusement is one thing, but everything from horror movies to thrillers to action pictures to video games has gone way overboard with the bloodletting. Is it helping to make us immune to such real life killings? It’s got to be one of the reasons our nation has done so little to amp up confronting violence after Columbine, the shooting of Representative Gabriel Giffords and others in Arizona, and the Cineplex shooting in Colorado just this past summer. Killing and violence has its place in drama, but a bit of discretion and taste is sorely needed these days.

There were many things worth lauding on the screen this year in the genre of horror. The incredible animated horror fable FRANKENWEENIE is just one of them. (My rave review is here: And I will be writing about the thrills of that film and other 2012 horror highlights for the Examiner very soon. (As well as examining the best in film overall here @ The Establishing Shot in the next weeks.) But this latest real life horror is one that I wish I didn’t have to think about or be compelled to write about. Let’s hope that with some true imagination and accountability, our nation rises to the occasion and does something truly positive to keep fact from overwhelming fiction when it comes to the horrors that haunt us.

Sunday, December 9, 2012


While at the movies the other day, a teenage horror fan rolled her eyes and asked me, “Did you see that preview for WARM BODIES? It’s trying to be a TWILIGHT movie…only with zombies.” Well, not exactly. But I suppose it’s a fair question. It could appear to some that zombies have oversaturated the horror genre. With so many of the ‘walking dead’ marauding about on film and TV, it begs the question if they’ve left too many horror fans bored and dare I say, a little brain dead.

One could certainly make the case, as there have been a ton of zombie projects out there stomping around, clawing for our attention. Just check out all the zombie movies, some still to be made, listed at Wikipedia:  In the last few years, zombies have really captured the zeitgeist what with the hugely successful graphic novels and AMC TV series of THE WALKING DEAD; the zombie mash-up books like PRIDE & PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES; and popular movies from ZOMBIELAND to the countless reboots and remakes of George Romero’s classic film series that started with THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD back in 1968.
http://http://In the last few years, zombies have really captured the zeitgeist what with the hugely successful graphic novels and AMC TV series of “The Walking Dead”; the zombie mash-up books like “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies”; and popular movies from “Zombieland” to the countless reboots and remakes of George Romero’s classic film series that started with “The Night of the Living Dead” back in 1968.
But somehow they find ways to stay, ahem, fresh. ZOMBIELAND (2009) is an interesting example of how the sub-genre stays legit even as it satirizes the excesses of the form. The zombies in this movie are drooling, shuffling doofuses ripe for the picking off and the parody. But even while the zombies invite ridicule, the human characters can never underestimate them for the undead just keep coming, in larger and larger numbers, with a relentless nature that would make cockroaches envious. The climactic scene finds the zombies tracking them to an amusement park. Amusement indeed.

There’s obviously so much appeal to the living dead but is there a point at which the market becomes too saturated to the point where zombies stop being truly scary? So far, I’d say that answer is no. As long as filmmakers are finding new shadings for the sub-genre, zombies will continue to stalk us. Danny Boyle spun a different take on the zombie world with 28 DAYS LATER (1992) about a plague-ridden world turning everyone into flesh-eating maniacs. I love the fact that in his movie, they all ran really fast. It literally was like a zombie movie on speed. And it shows that there are all kinds of nuances that the zombie film world can hold.
Another rather recent effort that stood out to me for trying something different was the English comedy SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004), a zom-rom-com about a nerdy working class stiff trying to save his girl from the zombie apocalypse. Edgar Wright (SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD) cleverly directed this witty farce with a deep appreciation for the lurid as well as the laughs. I also enjoyed DEADGIRL, a quite disturbing tale about high school teen losers finding a teenage zombie and keeping her as their personal ‘girlfriend’. This film brilliantly illustrates the point that in monster movies it's often the humans who are the most monstrous. 

Entertainment Weekly columnist Mark Harris makes the case that zombies are permeating our culture these days due to the economic disaster of 2008, causing fear that we can lose everything we know instantly, which is one of the recurring themes in zombie films. He may be onto something with that theory, considering we’re still living on the precipice of fiscal cliffs and worldwide recession. Annihilation continues to creep up on us again and again, ready to gut us all, doesn't it? And if that isn’t the world of zombies, what is?

What I love about the zombie world is that it is often so deceitful. Zombies are usually slowed, unthinking and almost comical at times, but that’s what makes them so utterly lethal. We underestimate them. We think we can outrun them, outthink them, and blow them away as long as we’re armed. But as Jesse Eisenberg explains in ZOMBIELAND, “In those moments where you're not quite sure if the undead are really dead, don't get all stingy with your bullets. I mean, one more clean shot to the head, and this lady could have avoided becoming a human Happy Meal.”

They're also deceitful because so often in zombie movies, good people are bitten and don’t want to reckon with the fact that their time is up. To compound matters, their friends and loved ones never want to put them out of their misery and it drags out the agony. That can be taken as a metaphor for old age, death, AIDS, fatal illnesses, you name it. We all have it coming, but few of us want to confront our mortality.

And those universal themes will continue to inform both the films and the audiences, and make us hunger for more. Thus, we have something to look forward to in 2013 as the aforementioned WARM BODIES haunts cineplexes starting in February. Nicholas Hoult (X-MEN: FIRST CLASS) plays a teenage zombie who falls for a live girl and starts to find his soul again. (IMDB info here: And after that, WORLD WAR Z premieres nationwide. The Z stands for zombies of course, as the whole world goes to crap and in this one, it’s up to Brad Pitt to save us.

Even though the first half of the third season of  THE WALKING DEAD is history, it raises all kinds of questions and promises for the concluding eight episodes due in 2013. Who’s in charge and even so, what are they in charge of? One of the truly brilliant things about the series is contained within the title itself. Aren’t the ‘walking dead’ really the surviving humans in the piece? The poor survivors are just suckers marking time with nowhere to go. And they're faced with the unenviable fate of waiting to get theirs.  

So I say, bring on the zombies - more and more of 'em! What zombie love stories are out there waiting to be told? Couldn’t the STEP UP movie series do a monster mash-up with zombies and create a new dance craze while they’re at it? How about a zombie western? A zombie political thriller? And yes, why not a zombie musical? The mind reels at the possibilities. Who says the genre is brain dead? Just like its inhabitants, it has a never-ending appetite. Chomp! Chomp! 

Sunday, December 2, 2012


The buzz on the movie version of LES MISERABLES already has critics salivating and audiences waiting with bated breath for it to open Christmas Day. Whether audiences buy all the hype remains to be seen, but some pundits are already predicting a Best Picture Oscar win. It sounds like it’s an exceptional transfer from stage to screen, and that’s not always the easiest thing to do. For every brilliant classic like WEST SIDE STORY (1961) or THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965), you get an unwatchable clunker like this year’s ROCK OF AGES. I’m hopeful LES MIZ will fall into the former category. And if you’re chomping at the bit to see it like I am, perhaps you can satiate your musical cravings with these five terrific stage-to-screen musicals that don’t get nearly as much due as the aforementioned classics.

I think this is the greatest movie musical since CABARET (1972), and yes, that means it’s better than Best Picture winner CHICAGO (2002). And it got just as many good reviews by the critical community. Yet shockingly, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS absolutely bombed at the box office. And now, it’s barely remembered. What a pity considering that director Frank Oz did such a wonderful job bringing this offbeat love story between boy, girl and hothouse flower, to such a full bouquet. Rick Moranis plays the boy, a hopeless nerd named Seymour who toils away in soil, as a flower shop clerk, pining for fellow shop worker Audrey (the adorably quirky Ellen Greene). One day he discovers a talking Venus flytrap who happens to have a taste for blood. He starts feeding it droplets of his own plasma, but it isn’t long before the plant’s insatiable appetite grows to want larger, more fully-rounded humans, like Audrey. Now that’s a love triangle! The movie’s black comedy sensibilities may have doomed it, but it is one of the funniest musicals on film nonetheless, with a brilliant score by Alan Menken and the late, great Howard Ashman. (Right after this, they did THE LITTLE MERMAID, followed by BEAUTY & THE BEAST. Dang, they’re good.)

1776 (1972)
A musical about the Declaration of Independence sounds like a dry history lesson, doesn’t it? Yet this film couldn’t be further from that cliché. 1776 is a totally engaging entertainment with a quick-witted score, loads of uproarious comedy & compelling drama, and rich characterizations that bring history to vivid life. The original production won the Best Musical Tony Award in 1969, and its transfer to screen five years later wisely utilized most of the same creative Broadway talents behind the scenes and in front of the camera. Star William Daniels reprised his career-defining role as John Adams and if you think Paul Giamatti owns the character, see Daniels. He’s passionate, prickly, and physical. And he dominates every scene he’s in like few actors have before or since.

One of his best numbers finds him imploring his fellow congressmen to help him write the Declaration of Independence, reminding them that his version will be dismissed due to him being so “obnoxious and disliked.” When called upon to write the damn thing, the cowardly Roger Sherman sings back to Adams, “But Mr. Adams, I cannot write with any style or proper etiquette, I don’t know a participle from a predicate, I am just a simple cobbler from Connecticut!” Now that’s a lyric! (And it’s factually accurate too.) If you liked Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN, you should see 1776. Both films show just how difficult it is to get things done in the name of freedom when politics keeps rearing its ugly head and stands in the way.
HAIR (1979)
Gene Siskel picked this as his Best Picture of 1979 and with good reason. It’s a unique, challenging, and utterly original musical. Milos Forman, a director not exactly known for musicals (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, AMADEUS), found a quirky, raw tone for his screen version of the landmark 60’s rock opera, and from the very first frame the film is filled with edgy intensity. The narrative concerns a ‘boy meets girl’ love story set against the backdrop of the Viet Nam War and the youthful counter culture raising its voice at home. It’s a darkly adult movie musical filled with big themes and liberal leanings. And it’s got Twyla Tharp’s unique avant-garde choreography strutting its way throughout. 

One of its highlights is seeing the hippies frolic around to the song “The Age of Aquarius” in Central Park while the police horses match their dance moves step by step. It’s as dark a film musical as they come, but it’s largely forgotten today. That’s such a shame because it’s as powerful as many more popular anti-war movies about Viet Nam. To this day, I’m still haunted by Forman’s brilliant shot of Treat Williams, as the hippie leader, being forced into a humongous cargo plane to be shipped off to his certain doom in Asia with all the other new draftees. Forman frames the plane so it looks like a big whale swallowing up the hapless grunts. They’re marching straight into the belly of the beast and it’s powerfully symbolic of everything that was wrong with the draft and the war.  

This movie was a big hit, making over $100 million in the USA alone, but it was completely forgotten at Oscar time despite award-worthy production design, costumes, editing and a knock-out supporting performance by Michelle Pfeiffer. HAIRSPRAY started as a 1988 John Waters cult film and then was adapted as a big Broadway musical comedy in 2002. It became an enormous hit that ran for years, spurring director/choreographer Adam Shankman, one of the recurring judges on SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE, to turn it into a toe-tapping, big screen extravaganza. His movie is exhilarating, full of joyous movement and plucky humor. The delightful score is by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Thomas Meehan, Mark O’Donnell and adaptor Leslie Dixon wrote its witty book. And the first-rate cast is filled with stars, both young and old. Newcomer Nikki Blonsky took the lead, with John Travolta in drag as her mom. Surrounding them are teen idols Zac Efron, Amanda Bynes and Brittany Snow, holding their own against veteran scene-stealers like Christopher Walken and Queen Latifah. It’s a shimmering jewel of a film that only gets better with repeat viewings. And it should have at least gotten an Oscar for costume design.

GYPSY (1962)
Barbra Streisand is set to direct and star in a new big screen version of the famous story of a pushy burlesque stage mom trying to turn her daughters into stars. But way before that, and way before the Better Midler TV version and all the umpteen revivals on Broadway, there was this marvelous big screen version of this Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents masterpiece that starred Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood. As Mama Rose, Russell was not a great singer and perhaps that’s why people overlook it today. But the character of Rose is supposed to be a ‘wannabe’; a woman who wanted to be a star but didn’t have the chops. Now she’s living through her children and forcing her dreams to become theirs. Personally, I think Streisand’s soaring talent is not right for the role of the bullying matriarch but I could be proven wrong. Nonetheless, Russell gives a great performance, one that netted her an Oscar nomination despite not having a great singing voice. 

And supporting her, in one of her finest film performances, is the doe-eyed ingénue Wood. She plays Louise, the tomboyish daughter, who never sings out enough and can’t be the girl that guys want to dance with. But irony of ironies she’s the one who becomes a star. By accident they’re booked into a strip joint and Louise goes on stage to fulfill their contract and her mother’s dreams. She ultimately becomes ‘Gypsy’ Rose Lee, the world famous striptease artist whose memoir is the source material for this musical. It’s one of Broadway’s all-time greatest shows, and it’s a helluva movie too. If you haven’t seen it, you owe yourself the pleasure. And do it before Babs gets her long nails all over it!

 Today, fewer and fewer Broadway musicals are being transferred to the silver screen. And if they are, it takes years. (It took LES MIZ almost three decades to arrive!) And in the most telling of reversals, new Broadway musicals are now being based upon proven cinematic hits. In the last decade alone, Broadway has adapted dozens of movies into musicals for The Great White Way, everything from LEGALLY BLONDE to YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN to A CHRISTMAS STORY. 

Musicals remain an expensive, tough sell, on Broadway or off. And producers want a ROI so they turn to properties with name recognition. So do movie producers. With all that working against Broadway musical transfers to the Cineplex, don’t go looking for the film version of WICKED any time soon. At the rate things are going, it will be mid-century before that one shows up. Until then, we can look forward to LES MIZ and hope it opens doors for other Broadway shows to follow. And hey, we’ve got these five to enjoy right now. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012


It's Thanksgiving week and there is a lot to be thankful for in regards to 2012 movies. Granted, the first half was anything but stellar, but the last few months have been superb. And there are more holidays goodies to come. So without further ado, here's what I'm especially appreciative of this year. (And I hope you'll share what you're thankful for in the comments section after this post!)

It’s my pick for best film of the year so far because of Steven Spielberg’s tough, taut direction, Tony Kushner’s literate and witty script, sumptuous, top-rate production values and a cast of marvelous character actors filling even the smallest roles. And then there’s the year’s best performance by the utterly incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis. Wow! What a film.

He’s one helluva director. And GONE BABY GONE, THE TOWN, and ARGO are a testament to his knack for filmmaking and picking great scripts. (I now officially forgive him for having ever dated J-Lo. And making GIGLI with her.)

I love it that even when she appears in fashion spreads (like in the current issue of W) she pushes the envelope. Just like in all the roles she takes. We can look forward to her in the upcoming RUST & BONE. Can’t wait!

Their amazing skill is gloriously on display this year what with LINCOLN, CLOUD ATLAS, HITCHCOCK and THE HOBBIT. Prosthetics never looked so damn believable.

She’s making movies. She could be a Bond girl, don't you think? Perhaps this GQ cover is her audition.

They gave us FRANKENWEENIE and WRECK-IT RALPH this year. Clearly, their partnership with Pixar is paying off quite a byte. (And fingers crossed for what they can do with STAR WARS.)

The candy-themed world that Ralph ends up in is a witty, sumptuous feast for the eyes. If there is any justice in Hollywood, it will get an Oscar nomination come January.

The animated short shown before the regular feature WRECK-IT RALPH (pictured above) is a sublime black and white pantomime about love, longing and paper airplanes. 

She’s as emotionally naked as she is physically so in the incredibly moving dramedy THE SESSIONS. Her amazing performance could win her another Oscar. I hope it does.

And speaking of THE SESSIONS, he’s one of the best actors in Hollywood, and thankfully he’s getting a ton of work as a leading man like it that film, and a supporting one as in LINCOLN.

There haven’t been too many in the last few films, but Javier Bardem’s Silva is a silky, purring panther whose wit is almost as lethal as his claws.

Not only is it always a raucous party Globe night, but the Hollywood Foreign Press gives movie musicals and comedies their due with their own categories. Let’s hope that means there’s some awards love for comedies like TO ROME WITH LOVE, FRIENDS WITH KIDS and RUBY SPARKS this year.

He stole my heart in THE ARTIST. What a great actor he is! And now he's got an autobiography out and it's a delightful read. Plus, if you follow him on Twitter and Facebook, you'll get to appreciate his wit on a daily basis. Uggie puts the wow in ‘bow wow’! (You can order his book here @ Amazon:

Is there a more unique and riveting filmmaker working these days? He’s explored porn in BOOGIE NIGHTS, megalomania in THERE WILL BE BLOOD and now cults in THE MASTER. I can’t wait to see what he’ll do after that. And after that. And after that.

Not only is she a terrific actress but I love that she’s refusing to fall into the skinny girl trap of Hollywood. In fact, she’s thumbing her nose at it. Publicly. Every chance she gets. Love that. Love her. (And I'm anxious to see her in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK this week.)

He’s conquered the stage multiple times in London, and on TV too with his sublime performance as SHERLOCK. Now, he’s starring in films with an important supporting role in THE HOBBIT as well as a villainous lead in the new STAR TREK movie in May. (His trajectory to the top of Tinsel Town appears to be rather elementary, wouldn't you say?)

In FLIGHT, he miraculously he not only saves a doomed plane, but as an actor he makes the audience care for his stubborn, self-destructive alcoholic pilot every second of his downward spiral.

Theaters are going gourmet with exotic chocolates, coffee drinks, sandwiches, muffins and smarter snacking choices. (Can a co-op with Whole Foods be far off?)

She’s taking one big, challenging role after another in films like A DANGEROUS METHOD and the soon-to-be-released ANNA KARENINA. (Who says Millennials aren’t ambitious?)

The Academy showed some real balls picking him to host the Oscars next February. (Did they see TED? Better get that 5 second delay ready.)

Ever sit in a regular theater after spending time in stadium seating? Impossible.

Well, those are some of the things I’m thankful for. How about you? Oh, and no matter what, be sure and have a great Thanksgiving.  And go see a movie. There's so much to see!(What? You’d rather shop?)