Monday, April 30, 2012

So long, Blogger... Hello, Wordpress!

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FLICKERS has officially moved. The new URL is: theflickersblog.com

Please stop what you're doing and head to the new page so you can perform one or more of the following tasks:

1) Adjust your RSS reader
2) Resubscribe via Email
3) Save bookmark

Also, please adjust your blogrolls so your visitors can pop if they are inclined to do so.

Thanks to everyone who assisted me with the move.

Hope to see you all there!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Movin' Out!

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After several Blogger-related headaches that resulted in many do-overs over the course of this blog's lifetime, Flickers is moving out. We've had enough!

I found a new home at Wordpress and also registered for my own domain. I cannot reveal the new URL just yet, you'll have to wait a few days. The new place is a mess. I have to tidy up; it needs a paint job, I need to fix a few broken links, make sure the transition went smoothly, etc. You understand, right?

So keep your eyes peeled for a new address and a new Flickers! I'm not sure how to automatically redirect the traffic from this site to the new one, but hopefully all of you will adjust your RSS feeds and email subscriptions once I'm ready to open shop.

If any of you have experience with moving blogs, please shoot me a line.

Thanks for your patience, gang. Back soon!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Best of the Year: 1988

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And then there were 10.

At this point in the "Best of the Year" series on Flickers, I'm down to 10 remaining years to be covered. Since I'm trying to limit these lists to once or twice a month, I hope to be done by this summer. One year left in the 80's, 4 in the 90's, and 4 in the 'aughts. Then to top it all off, I'll finally be ready to send out 2011.  It's been a fun ride, and I appreciate everyone's comments. It's a great way to gauge the taste of my readers, in addition for them to get a read on what I'm all about. If you want to look back, check the new tabs at the top of the blog. These "Best of the Year" posts list all of my yearly round-ups.

You'll notice I don't do Top 10s. I hate limiting myself to 10 films. If I see 11 great films in a year, why should I have to leave one of them out? There's no point to it, really. And I like to list them alphabetically because I can't bear to say that title #4 is somehow better than title #5. Yes, some films are better than others, but if they are on these lists, then they are all great in my eyes and all worthy of my attention and yours.

And now, 1988. What a trip down memory lane. I was so young, so impressionable. Granted, some of this stuff wasn't seen by me until I was a little bit older (I was 11 when this year rolled around), but this is what I grew up with. Most of the titles on this list partially molded me into the film connoisseur that I am today.

So let's get to it, shall we?

My Picks of the Year
(listed alphabetically)
Beetlejuice
A highly rewatchable, imminently quotable Tim Burton masterpiece, this comedy/horror flick features great sets, a fantastic Michael Keaton, and awesome creatures. It's the quintessential Burton film because it masterfully combines all his great comedic and horrific imaginations into one wacky ride. Honestly, Burton hasn't since done anything remotely as memorable as this one.

Big
"I just wanna be big." How universal is this request? Just about every child wished he/she could be big, and Penny Marshall made one kid's dream come true with hilarious and touching results. Tom Hanks, in one of his best performances, is exactly what he's supposed to be -- a big, lonely kid. Robert Loggia, Elizabeth Perkins and Jared Rushton (as Billy) lend strong, sensitive support. How could one not love this movie?

Coming to America
Eddie Murphy continued his hot 80's streak with this romantic farce that boasts some hilarious riffs on cross-cultural mating habits. Arsenio Hall garnered a lot of laughs as Murphy's best friend, and together, they are a comic duo sorely missed this day and age. Whenever this is on television - and it's frequently - I never change the channel.

Die Hard
Not only was this movie a trendsetter in Hollywood (i.e. "Die Hard on a Bus"), but it also gave us Bruce Willis, the unshowiest, most unpretentious movie star in the business. He is one of the most chameleonic film legends of our generation, and every few years, he amazingly reinvents himself. It all started with Die Hard, a rock 'em, sock 'em, violent, bloody thriller. Alan Rickman memorably plays Hans Gruber, one of the best villains in the history of cinema. "Welcome to the party," indeed.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Steve Martin, in his funniest-ever performance, plays Freddy, a con man who falls for the lovely Glenne Headley. Unfortunately, he has to fight for her with fellow con man Lawrence, played with equal menace and humor by Michael Caine. The scenes with Martin in the wheelchair evoke tears of laughter during each uproarious viewing.

Everybody's All-American
Dennis Quaid is in top form in this sports/soap opera drama from the usually reliable director Taylor Hackford. Quaid is the young star quarterback who falls hard for Jessica Lange. Over the years, we watch their marriage grow, and then dissipate as he nears retirement. The story is epic in feel and scope, yet it's the intimacy of its characters that makes it so winning.

A Fish Called Wanda
“Sing it, Ken! Sing it!” How can you forget the image of Kevin Kline shouting impatiently at a stuttering Michael Palin, trying, just trying, to reveal the name of the airport? This is a dark, dark comedy; so ruthless, so sexy, and so cunning. Kline deserved his Oscar as Otto, an insufferable louse, and I particularly enjoyed a memorably bosomed Jamie Lee Curtis as the title role. In a year filled with many great comedies, this one produces the hardest, deepest laughs.

Frantic
Harrison Ford in a serious French thriller? Yes. And it works! Roman Polanski directed Ford in his riskiest project since Blade Runner, and they create a very moody, low-key mystery in which Ford, an American doctor visiting France with his wife, watches his life turn upside down as the Mrs. suddenly vanishes. The good doctor discovers his dark side as he so desperately looks for answers. A few months later, Ford smartly counters this performance with a much lighter role in what turns out to be my favorite film of this year.

I'm Gonna Git You Sucka
“He started getting into drugs and stuff....and then he....he started wearing gold chains, Jack!” “Oh, God, No!” A hilarious blaxploitation satire from Keenan Ivory Wayans, this is a smart, dumb film. Not everything works here, but when things click, big laughs are produced. Wayans and his great cast of veterans of the genre do great work here, delivering tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek dialogue from Wayans’ own script.

The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!
Lt. Frank Drebin could very easily be one of the funniest movie characters ever created. Embodied by Leslie Neilsen, his facial expressions, mannerisms, slow-burn reactions, and never-quit attitude encapsulate the tone for the Zucker brand of comedy. The pacing is a little off, as are all of the Zucker comedies, but the laughs and smiles here are still non-stop.

Running on Empty
The year's most riveting drama, by Sidney Lumet, features a career-topping performance by the late, great River Phoenix. Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch are especially good too, as Phoenix's parents who have been on the run from the FBI since they bombed a lab during the war. When is it time to stop running? When is it time to let go? Powerful, engrossing stuff.

Scrooged
One of the more underappreciated films of the 80's. Bill Murray is perfectly cast as a modern day scrooge in Richard Donner's fairly faithful adaptation of A Christmas Carol. With Murray attached, it was expected to be riotously funny, but it's not. It's a pretty dark film, but it can also lift you right up; you'll be singing along with the cast and crew by the time the credits roll and long afterward. Come on. Put a little love in your heart, baby!

Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Robert Zemeckis is a genius, and I don't care what anyone else says. His endless talent as a true filmmaker shines through as this "gimmick" turns into a cartoon/live-action dramedy with a big, big heart. Roger Rabbit is just as real and three-dimensional as Christopher Lloyd's live-action (or is he?) Judge Doom, Kathleen Turner’s sultry Jessica Rabbit (“I’m not bad. I was just drawn that way.”) and Bob Hoskins' gruff, lovable dick. Clever, seamless, ahead of its time and downright brilliant.

Working Girl
Mike Nichols has fashioned a robust, quirky, feel-good rags-to-riches story that has Melanie Griffith delivering her career’s most memorable performance as a working girl climbing, not sleeping, her way to the top. Smart casting in Sigourney Weaver, sublime as her ruthless boss, Joan Cusack as her amusing best friend, Alec Baldwin as her scoundrel of a boyfriend and Harrison Ford, in a humorous, light-as-a-feather supporting role (although top-billed) as Griffith's love interest. Carly Simon's Oscar-winning song gives the film an extra kick, and upon each viewing, your mood just soars when Tess McGill finally gets her due. No movie in 1988 makes me feel as good as this one.

Honorable Mentions
Dominick and Eugene; Funny Farm; Gorillas in the Mist; License to Drive; Midnight Run; Mississippi Burning; Poltergeist 3; Pulse; Rain Man

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Musings Through Filtered Ears #8

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It's been a while since I've done one of these. For those new to the game, these are just random thoughts from an obsessive listmaker...

---

"Why did you run away? What did you feel you had to run from?"


"Doctor, my wife is seven months pregnant with a baby we didn't intend. My 15-year-old son has cerebral palsy. I am an extremely overqualified high school chemistry teacher. When I CAN work, I make $43,700 a year. I have watched all of my colleagues and friends surpass me in every way imaginable, and within 18 months, I will be dead. And you ask why I ran?"

Breaking Bad is one of the best shows I have ever had the pleasure of seeing.

---


So, I went to the movies for the second time in 2012. Ever since I had children, I never made much time to venture out to the theaters. Quite frankly, I don't miss it too much. I'm perfectly happy with my home viewing experiences (Netflix is in my bloodstream; I'm still beating myself for not buying stock in it when I first joined in 1999). But every now and then, an opportunity arises to grace my presence in a movie theater and I grab it. This weekend, I saw The Cabin in the Woods. I won't review it here, but suffice to say, I enjoyed it quite a bit. It was opening weekend, I was not spoiled, and I didn't let the deafening buzz kill the experience. Sure, I could have waited for DVD like I do with hundreds of other titles but there was something about this one that made me want to see it in a theater. I knew I needed to go in as blindly as I could. I'm glad I followed my gut. The film just kept unraveling its surprises while spinning in new and exciting directions. It felt so good not knowing what the hell was going to happen next. For a well-worn genre like horror, that's refreshing. Full credit goes to my Buffy heroes, Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon.

Giles would be proud.

---

I've been reading Entertainment Weekly since its inception many, many years ago. I'm a faithful subscriber. There are a handful of issues I look forward to every year, and The Summer Movie Preview is one of them. Summer films don't quite have that magic as they used to. I'm not sure if the quality of the films have deteriorated over the years or if I've become cynical in my old age of 35. Maybe it's a little bit of both. That said, when I see these movie preview issues in my mailbox, I get a little excited inside. The magazine is heavier than usual. Maybe a little glossier. I dig into the anticipation of what's to come in the hot, summer months ahead. As I've said earlier, I don't venture out to the movies as much as I used to, but for some hotly anticipated summer films, I'll make the trip. So after studying this issue closely, which films do I want to see the most?

In true cinephile tradition, here's a list. We all love lists, don't we?

The Top Ten Nine Eight Films I Will Make Some Sort of Effort To See in Theaters in Summer 2012
(I couldn't get excited over 10 films.)

8. Expendables 2
All you have to do is say, "Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis do battle. And somehow, Van Damme is involved." Do I really need to know more? Even though the original was just so-so, these guys pump me up more so than those wimpy superheroes in spandex costumes.

7. Brave
I'm a little nervous about this one but I'm blindly trusting my faith in Pixar. The story and setting don't thrill me but it does look gorgeous. I'm not a hater of Cars 2, but it was a bit of a step down for the greatest animation studio in the history of the world. Time for them to step back up.

6. The Bourne Legacy
I wasn't initially a Bourne fan. The series got better as it went along, and The Bourne Ultimatum was actually one of my favorite films of '07. I'll miss Damon but Jeremy Renner and the rest of this pretty awesome ensemble looks right at home.

5. Safety Not Guaranteed
Not featured prominently in EW (they just had a one line summary, really.) But I had learned about this when it played in Sundance and the whole thing just jumped at me. It's a time travel comedy with Kristen Bell, Audrey Plaza, Mark Duplass and one of the dudes from New Girl. Count me in!

4. Take This Waltz
Michelle Williams is married to Seth Rogen (how cute is that pairing?). But she's tempted to cheat on him with some dreamy guy. Sarah Polley directs. I saw the trailer and I gotta say, I'm smitten. Looks like a heartfelt romance and Williams looks absolutely resplendent.

3. Ted
I have never seen anything with Seth McFarlane. I have not witnessed a single minute of Family Guy. But this trailer made me laugh. Hard. Mark Wahlberg is a gifted comedic actor.

2. Prometheus
Well, OK, it depends. If they PG-13 this sucker, I'm not all that interested in seeing it. This is an R-rated film series. Once you soften up the Alien franchise, you suck the life out of it. See also: Die Hard 4. So don't fuck it up again, 20th Century Fox! This has the potential to really scare the shit out of us.

And the number one movie I'm most looking forward to this summer is:



1. Premium Rush
The action thriller I'm most stoked about. Why? Mostly because it's from David Koepp, an extraordinarily gifted writer and director (check out his credits on IMDb). But also because Joseph Gordon-Levitt is our next Bruce Willis - a chameleonic action star with strong acting chops given the right material. And Michael Shannon is the villain! No monsters. No aliens. It's not a sequel or based on a comic series. It's an original old-fashioned old-school Hollywood thriller.

On the fence
I will most likely be renting these flicks, unless word of mouth tells me that it's a helluva lot better (or worse!) than it looks. We'll see about that.
The Amazing Spiderman. Looks great! Awesome pedigree in front of and behind the camera. But isn't it too soon? Why do we need this? Feels so arbitrary.
The Avengers. The previous "spin-offs" were a mixed bag, but Joss Whedon directed this one. This alone makes me cautiously optimistic about it. Anything Whedon touches is worth a look.
People Like Us. Sounds like a soap opera, but I really like this cast. I'd give it a shot. On Netflix.
The Dark Knight Rises. I know, why aren't I excited about this like the rest of the world? Because I'm just not in love with the Christian Bale/Christopher Nolan Batman series. I'd vote for Keaton over Bale, but that's a moot point, really. I'm just not a Batman kind of guy. Still, these are well-made films. I'll Netflix it.
Men in Black 3. It could be absolutely terrible. But Brolin really nails his Tommy Lee Jones impersonation. Is that really enough to warrant a big screen trip? Probably not.
To Rome With Love. I like this cast, but I was never a big Woody Allen fan. Still, he's on a roll, and it's probably worth a look. 
Dictator. The man who gave me a 1000 laughs with Borat will always get a chance from me. Even if it doesn't look all that funny. Come to think of it, I think I'd rather just see a Borat sequel. 
Rock of Ages. Again, great cast. Love the fact that Tom Cruise continues to take risks. The play is a smash hit on Broadway. So why does this look so cheesy?
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. A high concept Steve Carell vehicle. It's risky. But the trailer made it look somewhat charming enough for a Saturday night rental.
Savages. Taylor Kitsch a.k.a. Tim Riggins needs to be in at least ONE good movie this year, right? And Oliver Stone hasn't made much of a splash in a long, long time. Not feeling the love, but I'm curious about it.
Hope Springs. Anything Meryl does is worth a look. She's our goddess of the cinema. And Carell (again) and Tommy Lee Jones (again) are in it too. Could be a sweet movie. Could be a piece of canned shit. Only time will tell.
Magic Mike. I run hot and cold with Soderbergh. I don't think he's as great as he once was. But it looks like an intriguing film, a small-scale human interest story. With Channing Tatum's abs.
Total Recall - They may be raping my childhood yet again, but Bryan Cranston is the villain! It all feels so unnecessary but I am oddly intrigued by it.
Your Sister's Sister - Emily Blunt and RoseMarie DeWitt play sisters. That's all I really need to know.

If I left something out, then that just means I'm not interested in it (ahem, Dark Shadows). But who knows? A lot can happen in the summertime!

---

Speaking of lists, my Best of 2011 is beginning to shape up. I typically release it in May or June, when I've just about dried up the well of 2011 releases. I should be on schedule this year. Still on tap: Shame, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, A Separation, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and about ten to fifteen others. All in due time! It has shaped up to be a pretty strong year.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

My Movie Year: 1994

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This post was written as part of Fandango Groover's blogathon, My Movie Year, which celebrates our favorite year in movies.

1994 was a very big year for me. Personally speaking, it was the year I met a girl who would later become my wife and mother of my children. I was 15 and high school graduation was two years away. It was a time of discovery. Of myself, my life, my loves, my passions. I already knew I had a fondness for movies, but after the slate of films that came out in 1994, my escalating attachment to the medium was unstoppable.

Among the highlights:

It was the year I fell in love with Paul Newman.

It was the year Sandra Bullock, Kate Winslet and Natalie Portman took the world by storm.

It was the year Quentin Tarantino left his indelible mark and took the entire motion picture industry by surprise.

It was the year that Tom Hanks became our generation's Cary Grant.

It was a year that saw Jim Carrey, Brad Pitt, Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley and Morgan Freeman at the top of their game.

Independent filmmaking was thriving in Hollywood and they were a considerable force to be reckoned with. They started competing with the big blockbusters and garnered esteemed reputation. Roman Polanski and John Sayles made two very small, very well-regarded films and continued their steady rise as well-respected movie makers. I continue to admire their efforts today.

Jeff Daniels and Meg Ryan played against type and earned their best reviews to date. He, a serious and subtle performer, showed us that he has the chops to pull off obscene physical comedy. She, a box office heavyweight with a flair for fluffy rom-coms, showed considerable talent in soapy melodrama. They took risks this year and earned a newfound respect from me. I've been fans of their work ever since.

It was the year we said goodbye to Jessica Tandy with her last role.

It was the year we said hello, again, to John Travolta.

It was a year where we never looked at a box of chocolates, a bus coasting on the freeway, laxatives and a boat on the beach the same way again.

It was a year that was impossible to forget. In my Best of the Year post of 1994, I had no less than 15 films that I gave my highest rating. 15 movies that I'm happy to call my favorites.

For the purpose of this blogathon, here are five of those films that truly define how remarkable this year is. These films transcended their respectful genres and became timeless classics.

Forrest Gump
In my year-end round up, I wrote, "On paper, the film sounds impossible to pull off, but everything works perfectly. The flashback structure, the blending of reality and fiction, the litany of memorable one-liners, the seamless and ground-breaking effects, the gorgeous set design …all of these elements collaborate together so well, one has to assume it's a miracle that this film even worked." One of my favorite films of all-time, Forrest Gump is what I like to call a Top 5 contender. I can't think of a single negative thing to say about it.

Pulp Fiction
I wrote, "It is one of the most influential films of all time, an exercise of pure kinetic filmmaking, infused with crackling dialogue, a fractured, mind-blowing narrative structure, and career-defining performances by long-established actors." Pulp Fiction got me excited about filmmaking. Movies became more than just a place to escape to. Movies became art, a craft I eventually learned to study and appreciate.

The Shawshank Redemption
I wrote, "There is a reason why this film remains at the top of IMDb's Best 250 films of all time. It's a universally embraced drama about hope and freedom." In an age of cynicism and despair, The Shawshank Redemption is a ray of sunshine. One of the few films where my tears are actually tears of joy.

Speed
I wrote, "Wild, fast, and incredible to look at, Speed is the ultimate summer flick, the very best in the entire decade." Action films don't get better than this. Visceral, thrilling, violent, funny. Amid all of the chaos, Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock emerged from the wreckage to became bona-fide movie stars.

Dumb & Dumber
I wrote, "In the funniest film of the year, Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels made the most unlikely comic duo and succeeded with flying colors. There’s nothing quite better than a twisted comedy that still holds up after several years and repeated viewings." Of course, comedy is subjective, but for my money, there are very few films funnier than this one. My appreciation for Jeff Daniels grew exponentially while my love for Jim Carrey swelled even more.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Junior Film School: Ghostbusters

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I want my kids to love films as much as I do. I mean, really love them. As a parent, I have the power to influence and educate them on the joys of movie-going. My childhood consists of great, fuzzy memories of The Goonies, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Back to the Future, among other countless staples of the 1980's. I thought I'd give my kids the chance to experience the same kind of euphoria that I did. And so that's how the idea of a "Junior Film School" came to mind.

Through my Junior Film School posts, I will chronicle my attempts to open up the minds of my young children. The best way to do this (for the time being) is to show them some of my favorite films from when I grew up. Note: My daughter Emma is almost 2 years old and a bit too young to be a part of this experiment but I hope to include her in future "classes" as she gets older.

A few months ago, I had decided that my son Ryan (who is now 4 and a half) is ready to watch some real films. He's not quite oblivious to the fine art of movies. He's head over heels with Cars and the Toy Story films. I knew I steered him right starting him off with some classic Pixar films. Eventually, I'll show him the rest of the Pixar canon (he has enjoyed Finding Nemo and WALL-E, but doesn't cling onto them as he does with Buzz and Woody), but I'm anxious to open him up to live action films.

For this inaugural session, the first attempt to shake Ryan out of the cartoon craze of Buzz, Lightning McQueen, Mickey Mouse and Thomas the Tank Engine is with the great 1984 comedy, Ghostbusters. Was this a wise first choice? My wife was very much against my idea of introducing this movie to him at such a young, impressionable age. I told her that he needed to branch out of his comfort zone a little bit. Ghostbusters has no violence, no extreme language or nudity. As far as I recalled, it's not a scary movie by any means.

One thing I should note. My son cried during a Curious George episode when one character was yelling at George for being a bad monkey. He cried during The Incredibles whenever that nasty villain, Syndrome, turned up. To say that he's a sensitive child is an understatement. Showing him Ghostbusters was my feeble attempt to toughen him up a bit.

Now, when my son is nervous about something, he talks. A lot. From the moment the librarian was spooked to when Stay Puft exploded, Ryan never stopped talking. We had a running commentary for the entire length of the film. Most of his statements ended with a question mark. In the opening library scenes, for example:

"Where did the sticky stuff come from?"

"Is that lady a ghost?"

"Why did that old lady scream?"

"Did the books fall down from the ghost?"

"Why did she scream, daddy?"

I knew I was in for a challenge when he was a little shaken up by the screaming librarian. When the three Ghostbusters (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis) were scared off by the very same ghost a few moments later, he began covering his eyes.

But to my surprise, he did not cry during these opening scenes. He talked, covered his eyes, talked some more, but never cried. And I'm happy to say that the rest of the film followed suit.

And when I say he talked, I mean, he talked. He talked about the eggs on the counter. He talked about the nice lady being grabbed by the bad doggie. He hated those doggies. "They are mean and ugly, and did bad things." But he loved Slimer! He was a little sad when Slimer went into the trap. He liked Stay Puft, but for some reason he kept referring him as "the snowman." He was confused by the whole Gozer/crossing the streams scenario. (Try explaining why Gozer wanted to destroy humankind to a four-year-old. Ditto as to why crossing the streams was "very, very bad.")

He also didn't understand why "the bearded man" (Walter Peck, played by the slimy William Atherton) wanted to shut down the system that eventually unleashed all of the ghosts.

Me: "Because he was ignorant. He didn't fully understand the damage he would create by shutting it down."

Ryan: "So... the man with the beard didn't know he was going to let Slimer out?"

When the film ended, I was relieved. I was proud of the kid. He didn't break down crying or run away or become emotionally scarred from the film. He survived the first class!

That is, until that night when it was time to go to bed. He just wouldn't fall asleep. He was thinking about the ghosts.

"I like Slimer and the snow man, but I didn't like the screaming ghost and the mean doggies." He just kept repeating that sentence over and over. My wife had a "told you so" look on her face and made me talk him down.

Same thing happened the next night.

And the next night.

And the next.

It's been a week since we watched Ghostbusters and the topic of scary ghosts comes up every night before bedtime. But I stand by decision to show him the movie. To my defense, he still hasn't cried about it. He talks it out as if he was a patient, and I was his shrink.

The way I look at it is this: When it's time for bed, or even when we're outside playing ball, the images come back to his head. When we're not watching movies, he's still thinking and talking about movies.

So... mission accomplished!

If anyone has suggestions for age-appropriate classics I can show him for future "lessons," feel free to comment below.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Quick Takes: March Highlights

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March was a mostly great month of movie viewing for me. I certainly didn't break any records with the amount of films rented, but I was impressed with some of the high quality entertainment I consumed. On top of these films, I'm still plowing through the earlier seasons of Breaking Bad which has become an instant favorite. I'm not rushing because I want to savor the show for as long as I can. Why must good things always come to an end?

I started with the cheesefest that is the latest Twilight film, but then things got a little bumpy after that.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part One (2011)
Dir. Bill Condon
3/5
Every year when a new Twilight film comes out on DVD, my wife and I have a tradition. We put the kids to bed, get cozy, dim the lights, pop in the DVD and provide a running commentary on the absurdity and ridiculousness of this mega-popular series. That is the main source of entertainment from these otherwise mind-numbing, incredulously vacuous films. We were sorely disappointed with the previous installment; Eclipse was so boring, we could barely mine any laughs out of it. I am happy to report that Breaking Dawn Part One is a return to form. From Taylor Lautner's cardboard emotions ("I'm so lonely, I will barely take my shirt off in this movie.") to Bella's father's constipated look ("My daughter's marrying a freak. I need to act sad and happy at the same time.") to the ineptitude of the vampires (oh, shit, unprotected sex with a human = not good!) to the mumbling nonsense from the werewolves (the pact is broken! We must attack! Ok, we will wait. No, attack now! Wait, not yet!). Lots of really juicy stuff here. It's impossible to take it all so seriously (as they do in the film), but Breaking Dawn Part One made our night pretty damned entertaining.

Dir. Martin Scorsese
3/5
It took awhile for me to get into this one. For the first 45 minutes or so, I was shifting uncomfortably in my seat as I watched some rather uninspiring story about a kid living in a train station who fights with Ben Kingsley over an all-important journal and runs from a determined guard, played by a miscast Sasha Baron Cohen. But then something interesting happened. Kingsley's backstory blew the doors open to the real story of Hugo. For me, it's not about the boy or the book or the robot. It's about film appreciation and preservation. When Kingsley's past was uncovered, I was engrossed by his life as a creative filmmaker. Melies knew how magical the movies can be. He was a true artist, a class act magician whose camera was his most valuable tool. This was the best part about Hugo. It's just too bad it took almost an hour to get there.

Dir. Gavin O'Connor
4.5/5
Now this is what The Fighter should've done! Warrior got under my skin. Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, both very good here, play estranged brothers who are equally skilled in mixed martial arts. For their own reasons, they both join competitive fighting after several years of being away from the game. Oscar nominee Nick Nolte, as good as I've seen him in years, gives a searing performance as their father who does his damnedest to get them to forgive him for some questionable actions from the past. The lengthy running time flew by, the fighting scenes were cringe-worthy, and the dark, underlying family drama all helped make Warrior one of the best films of 2011.

Take Shelter (2011)
Dir. Jeff Nichols
4.5/5
Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a blue collar family man who is saddled with a severe case of paranoid schizophrenia. He slowly begins to experience frightening hallucinations that feel all too real for him. But Curtis is a man of pride. He won't admit to anyone that he has a problem, which causes friction in his marriage and his work life. What I really appreciate about Take Shelter was how down to earth it is. Each character behaves rationally, their emotions are impeccably on target. Director Jeff Nichols shows remarkable skill showcasing human behavior in such extreme and unsettling times. It helps that his lead is played by the very enigmatic Shannon, while Jessica Chastain is equally stunning as his headstrong wife. A fantastic film in many ways.

Dir. Sean Durkin
4/5
"Hi Martha. You look like a Marcy May." Creepy cult leader Patrick, played with low-key seductiveness by the great John Hawkes, lures girls onto his farm and domesticates them. They become wives, mothers, cooks, maids, you name it. As if that were not strange enough, these girls are forbidden to eavesdrop on another conversation. They cannot eat meals before Patrick and his "sons." When they answer the phone, the girls must always refer to themselves as Marlene. Director Sean Durkin, in an assured debut, begs you to ask questions. He intentionally sidesteps any easy answers. This isn't a stylish thriller but a subdued one, a rare thinking person's mood piece that has an eerie stillness to it. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a distinctive piece of work, effectively entering your mind and staying put for a long, long time.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey (2011)
Dir. Constance Marks
4/5
A pleasant surprise. Part of me was expecting to spend 90 minutes learning all about Elmo, that ridiculously popular puppet who took over a portion of Sesame Street and every child's toy closet several years ago. My kids love Elmo but most parents like myself can only handle him in small doses (if at all). But Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey is really about the journey of Elmo's creator, Kevin Clash, whose fondness for puppetry at a very young age marked the way of a very illustrious career in children's entertainment. It's an inspiring, heartfelt story about a kid who had a talent and a dream. Clash is a charming, gracious and humble individual and his life story is a joy to watch. Some people just deserve their good fortune.

The Muppets (2011)
Dir. Jay Bobin
3/5
This was unintentional, viewing two puppet-themed films over the course of one weekend. Incidentally, Being Elmo enhanced my appreciation of all things puppetry, and thereby allowing me to enjoy The Muppets, a sweet, diverting family comedy jam-packed with cameos, witty one-liners, and a silly story setting up a major comeback for our beloved muppets gang. The film predictably ambles along, though none of the set pieces or songs really stick out. With the talented Jason Segel involved behind the scenes and in front, I was expecting the humor to be sharper and more polished. While I wouldn't call it memorable, The Muppets is still pleasant enough for the whole family.

Melancholia (2011)
Dir. Lars von Trier
2.5/5
I found a lot of correlations between this film and Take Shelter. For one, both films deal with a mentally disturbed protagonist and their families who attempt to keep them grounded. Then there's the fantastical force that is mother nature and how it metaphorically stands for the turmoil in their psychologically ravaged minds. But the problem I had with Melancholia is that it is so relentlessly, tirelessly downbeat. Everyone is so bitter, angry, and defeatist. Unlike in Take Shelter, the characters in Melancholia acted in ways that made very little sense. They were inconsistent: I don't believe Justine's husband would abandon her. I don't believe that Kiefer Sutherland's John would do what he did in the final act. And I get that Dunst is playing a depressed woman but her actions and emotions towards her sister felt very erratic. The wedding arc was insufferable; the characters populating the party were nearly impossible to penetrate. Things opened up in the second half and the film finally showed some promise. But some questionable character moments kept me detached from the film, despite some stunning visuals and an overall sense of impending dread. For a far more absorbing drama about a dysfunctional family during a wedding, Rachel Getting Married is the one that shook me to my core. (Spoiler alert: no planets collided during that one.)

Carnage (2011)
Dir. Roman Polanski
3/5
Roman Polanski is no stranger to filming stage plays. He did exactly the same thing to Carnage as he did to 1994's underrated white-knuckle thriller Death and the Maiden: he took a conversational story set in "one-room," littered it with stellar actors, and took no liberties with the setting. Polanski could have broken down that "fourth wall" and turned these plays into cinematic works, but he knew that the tension and drama are inside those crackling bits of dialogue. Carnage, though engaging and mercifully short at 80 minutes, fails to captivate and titillate. Jodie Foster was tonally way off; I've never seen her more out of place in a film as I do here. John C. Reilly and Kate Winslet are fine; they felt more at home here in roles better suited for their skill set. But Christoph Waltz nailed it here, so good as an overworked and exasperated husband who buries himself in his work. Carnage is flawed, thin, and at times awfully shallow, but those stinging words do sometimes hit home.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Best of the Year: 1992

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My Picks of the Year
(in alphabetical order)
Death Becomes Her
Filmmaking genius Robert Zemeckis crafted this dark comedy about two feuding best friends (Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn) and the loser who came between them (Bruce Willis, brilliantly cast). The story takes a few awkward turns, but still, the film looks great, the effects are generous and ingenious, and the high wattage cast is terrific fun to watch. Zemeckis pulls it off once and again.

A Few Good Men
A lean, scenery-chewer of a courtroom drama. Nicholson and Cruise, an imaginative pairing if there ever was one, create vivid characters who square off spectacularly in the memorable final scenes. The supporting cast of pros, including Bacon, Pollak, Sutherland, Moore, and the late, great Walsh, help alleviate the tension and guide us through Aaron Sorkin's tightly polished screenplay. This is a fantastic movie, are we clear?

Glengarry Glen Ross
Who knew dialogue could be so powerful? David Mamet wrote this blistering, sobering account about the dog-eat-dog world of insurance salesmen. It may not sound thrilling as an idea, but this film has more chills, suspense and excitement than any Hollywood blockbuster. The script may be remarkable, but it is the actors that make this one compulsively watchable. Lemmon, Spacey, Harris, Pacino, Arkin, Baldwin and Pryce. That's a lineup every director dreams of and James Foley lets them work their magic in every scene. Anyone who appreciates the power of the written word and the nuance of an actor's delivery must seek out this film. A masterpiece of the highest order.

Hoffa
Jack Nicholson doesn't usually do biopics. Every character he portrays is his own (he even made the Joker look like an original creation). Well, now, he took a popular political figure and made Jimmy Hoffa his own; his performance is exciting and moving. Danny DeVito, an amazing director with great visual style, shows his usual panache behind the camera and in front of it -- and he's not afraid to tell us who Hoffa was and how he disappeared. It's a thrilling picture, masterfully executed.

Jennifer 8
Andy Garcia, the king of smoldering sexy actors, stars here as a cop who falls in love with a potential next victim of a twisted serial killer. Uma Thurman is the frightened blind woman, and John Malkovich, crackling here, is the investigator who fingers Garcia as a likely suspect. Jennifer 8 is a moody, well-scripted, tight thriller, enormously entertaining.

Leap of Faith
Steve Martin is a force to be reckoned with in this sweet, old-fashioned comedy-drama about a small town racked with problems. Martin is the evangelist who sweeps in, praises the Lord Almighty, pretends God is listening, and tells everyone that all is going to be OK. There's no question that Martin is conning everyone, but also, there's no doubt he's making everyone feel alive again. Leap of Faith is by no means a great film and it doesn't have a very original storyline, but it's got spunk, is highly engaging and features a rousing performance by one of the funniest men alive.

A Midnight Clear
A genuine indie discovery. This is a quietly powerful war drama in which a few soldiers, German and American, share a bond on Christmas during WWII, before both sides are forced to fight one another to the death. Keith Gordon directed an awesome young cast, which includes Peter Berg, Kevin Dillon, Gary Sinise, John C. McGinley, Ethan Hawke, and Frank Whaley. It's truly a unique situation, and this war film stands out among others because it effectively captures the fear and confusion of battle. Beautifully done!

Noises Off!
This could very well be one of the funniest films of all time. There are more laughs in this film than in the entire Zucker/Abrams/Zucker amalgam, and this one's got a surefire cast and a great cynical undertone. Michael Caine leads the pack as an exhausted director who can't seem to get his wacky cast together in time for their nonsensical play's opening performance. The late John Ritter, in one of his best roles, appears alongside Christopher Reeve, Julie Hagerty, Mark Linn-Baker, and Carol Burnett, forming a witty, delightful, rambunctious ensemble.

Of Mice and Men
My first discovery of the brilliant acting skills of John Malkovich. I saw this film as we were reading the famous novel by John Steinbeck for class in high school, and I absolutely fell in love with it. Malkovich is Lenny, and Sinise is his cousin. The relationship is not unlike that of Raymond Babbitt and his brother from Rain Man; their bond is strong and true, despite one of their mental handicaps. It's a quiet, lovely masterpiece.

Radio Flyer
Richard Donner, one of the better directors of the 80's and early 90's, created a shamefully underrated fantasy about two brothers who find a magical way to escape their abusive father. Some couldn't see it as a children's film, some couldn't see it as an adult drama, but for those who are looking for a little bit of both will find that this is a very strong, sensitively acted piece of work. Elijah Wood (the best child actor of his time), Joseph Mazzello, Lorraine Bracco, and Tom Hanks make a beautiful ensemble, and it's a crying shame the movie got blasted the way it did. It deserves so much more.

Red Rock West
Film noir is back, thanks to John Dahl and his superb craftsmanship. Nicolas Cage, in fine form, is a drifter who gets caught in a nasty mess as he swings by a small town in the middle of the desert. After a case of mistaken identity, things go severely wrong and the twists pile up. The cast is awesome, from Lara Flynn Boyle (before she got flaky) to Dennis Hopper to the late, great J.T. Walsh. Cool shit.

Sneakers
The only thing wrong with this film is the pacing - it feels overlong. But what would I cut from this supremely clever film? I wouldn't want to take any screen time away from the amazing cast, especially from Sidney Poitier (adding much class), River Phoenix (a touch of edginess), Dan Aykroyd (heavy doses of humor), Mary McDonnell (some sexiness), David Strathairn (sophisticated wit), Ben Kingsley (just the right amount of menace) and Robert Redford (the truly dashing anchor). The script is hysterical as it is wild. I'd say leave it as it is and savor every nifty minute of it.

Honorable Mentions
Basic Instinct; Far and Away; Hero; A League of Their Own; El Mariachi; Memoirs of an Invisible Man; My Cousin Vinny; Prelude to a Kiss; Raising Cain; Strictly Ballroom

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Gone But Not Forgotten: Quantum Leap (1989-1994)

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"Gone But Not Forgotten" is a series in which I reminisce about great television shows that are... yes... gone but not forgotten. Previous entries include Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sports Night.

"Theorizing that one can time travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator... and vanished!"

Every week for five seasons from 1989-1993, we heard that voiceover precede each episode of Quantum Leap, an ambitious and engaging sci-fi drama about a scientist who "leaps" from life to life, temporarily taking the places of other people. The concept is brilliant, giving the writers ample opportunities to, naming a few, provide social commentary for different time periods and locales, explore the fish-out-of-water concept in numerous ways, and give Scott Bakula an acting exercise any performer would dream of.

The premise is simple. Dr. Sam Beckett (Bakula, nominated for four Emmys for this role and winner of one Golden Globe) has created a time machine in the present day. After jumping into the accelerator before it was ready, he finds himself "trapped in the past, facing mirror images that are not his own." In order to leap out of their lives, he must alter their history to better their future. And in each leap, Sam hopes that his next one will be the leap home.

Dean Stockwell plays Al, a fellow scientist from the present day who "follows" Sam as he jumps from one life to the next. Al appears in the form of a hologram and is able to provide details to Sam that allows him to achieve his goal. To speak in Lost terms, Al is Sam's constant. Without Al, Sam would be completely disillusioned to his new surroundings.

Quantum Leap is a serialized drama, which means that every week Sam leaps into a different character and has a new goal to achieve. Some memorable leaps include: a criminal who holds a mother and daughter hostage; a chimp (yes, a chimp) who heads to outer space; a female rape victim; a co-pilot of an air taxi flying through the Bermuda Triangle; a washed-out baseball player; a Ku-Klux-Klan member; a young man with Down Syndrome (twice!); a traveling magician and so much more. But if I'm going to narrow it down to a select few over the course of five memorable seasons, these are the episodes/arcs that truly define how amazing this series used to be.

--"The Leap Home" (2 parts) - Season 3 Premiere
"I'd give anything to have what you have, Sam." That's what Al says when Sam realizes that he can save the lives of complete strangers but not his own family. In "The Leap Home Part One," he leaps into his own self at age 16 in 1969 and is finally at home again. He wants to prevent his father from dying of a heart attack and keep his brother from going to Vietnam and getting killed. But Al tells him the only reason he is there is to win a basketball game and Sam has tremendous difficulty accepting that.

What a moving, heartfelt hour of Quantum Leap. Watching Sam long for his family is heartbreaking. It was an innocent time and who wouldn't kill for a chance to rewind life back to that era and change things for the better?

In "The Leap Home Part Two," Sam leaps into a buddy from his brother's unit in Vietnam and ends up saving his life anyway. In a thrilling twist, he discovers Al as a POW in 1970. Sam wanted to free him but hologram Al refused. He got repatriated in 5 years anyway and wouldn't change a thing.

--"Shock Theater" - Season 3 Finale
The other bookend to this remarkable season was this finale in which Sam leapt into a mental patient who was administered shock treatment. This fries Sam's brain which not only weakens his connection with Al, but also causes Sam to act like some of the previous people he leapt into. This was an acting powerhouse from Scott Bakula who had to portray so many different personas for the entire hour. Really nerve-wracking drama. The tail-end of the hour has Sam leaping out of the hospital and switching places with Al in 1945. What a cliffhanger! Imagine enduring an entire summer waiting to see what happened next. It was the summer I turned 14, and I remember vividly being obsessed with this damn show. September couldn't have come any sooner.

--"The Leap Back" - Season 4 Premiere
When the show came back that September, it was as fun and rewarding as I had anticipated. The writers infused a lot of humor in this episode where Sam - finally! - got to enjoy life back at the home base in the present day. He reunited with his wife and was perfectly at ease commanding the "computer" that he designed in the first place. Sam certainly enjoyed the experience of being the hologram to Al's confused, dismayed leaper status. "Revenge is mine, saith the hologram!," Sam shouts with glee. Nice to see Quantum Leap take a break from the heavy stuff.

--"A Leap for Lisa" - Season 4 Finale
It seems the show worked best for me when the stakes were high, which happened at the beginning and end of the last three seasons. In the case of this surprising finale, Sam leaps into Al in 1957 when he was a young ensign. He tweaks history for the worse and Al is sentenced to death. The result is Sam having a new hologram to help him achieve his goal. It's safe to assume it all worked out in the end. The show is best when it toys with the elements of time and alters history as we know it. This theme continues masterfully with the next season's premiere.

--"Lee Harvey Oswald" - Season 5 Premiere
Probably Sam's most high-profile leap of the series and definitely one of the most compelling episodes the show ever produced. In another acting showcase for Bakula, Sam leaps in and out of Lee Harvey Oswald over the course of 5 years prior to the Kennedy assassination. This episode aired a year after Oliver Stone's JFK as a counter-argument for some widely-circulated conspiracy theories. Quantum Leap's creator and writer, Donald P. Bellasario, actually served in the Marine Corp with Oswald and is convinced that he acted alone in Kennedy's assassination. This episode, in which Sam retained some of Oswald's personality and was unable to control his actions (a first for the show), was a way for Bellasario to show that Oswald killed Kennedy alone because of his long-held political beliefs. Sam couldn't prevent Oswald from killing JFK, but the episode ended with the revelation that he had indeed saved the life of Jackie O. It was a tremendously satisfying conclusion to an exceptionally well-written, much-acclaimed episode.

--"Mirror Image" - Series Finale
Oh, how this finale made me so mad. "Mirror Image," a fun, twisty hour of time-travel goodness, was originally intended as a season finale. NBC opted at the last minute to cancel the show, leaving Bellasario with little choice but to wrap up the series with a cue card essentially stating that Sam "never returned home." Seriously? I felt we were owed so much more than that. There had been talk for many, many years about a follow-up TV movie, but it never happened. One of the worst things a series finale could do was not provide any sense of satisfying closure, and that's what happened with Quantum Leap. Having said that, I look back on this hour and realize how enjoyable it is. In a way, "Mirror Image" is a fitting end to the series because it featured a collection of popular personalities that we were familiar with from over the years. In the end, though, Sam did what he felt was right. He had the opportunity to go home, but he had to break some rules and fix Al's marriage. I suppose it was the least Sam could do after all Al had done for him. But when that fateful, frustrating cue card came up at the very end, I slapped my forehead.

Oh boy, indeed.

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