Monthly Archives: December 2013

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Reviewed: Have Skateboard, Will Travel.


Ben Stiller’s gorgeous conversion melodrama The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (PG-13) still contains the DNA of the original James Thurber short story – in which a hapless everyman dreams outsize fantasies of a rich and adventurous life – but that genetic material has been artificially engineered to create something unnaturally grand. Stiller’s Mitty is a nebbishy “negative asset manager” for Life magazine, tasked with safeguarding a prized image by a legendary photographer (Sean Penn) that will be used for the cover of Life’s final print edition. Trouble is, Walter can’t find the image or its creator – and his hunt takes him literally around the world, where he inadvertently discovers the robust life he thought was beyond him.

Stiller has conceived this third-generation Mitty (which has much more in common with the 1947 Danny Kaye adaptation than Thurber’s slim story) as an inspirational tale of the buttoned-down man who needs to get out of his own way to succeed in life. His metaphor of choice is travel: Walter’s search for the image allows cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh to build a travelogue reel of faraway lands that would be at home in the pages of, well, Life magazine. Unfortunately that epic journey – by plane, helicopter, boat and skateboard – is paired to a weak script that offers a predictable series of revelations, life lessons and small victories. Worse, the filmmakers do themselves a disservice by shooting Manhattan in a dynamic fashion that makes Walter seem like kind of a shmuck for failing to realize the glories of the world right outside his window. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is beautiful to look at, but ultimately hollow: a picture postcard with not much written on it.

(IMAGE: Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.)

Your Musical Advent Calendar, Part 12: “A Christmas Story.”


Everybody loves Christmas carols and everyone loves Christmas movies, but did you ever consider how your favorite films use your favorite music? Last in a 12-part series.

And so this is Christmas, and what have you done? Well, if you’re like me (and a lot of people) you’ve sweated through the last few weeks, trying to cobble together a memorable holiday for yourself and others while dealing with pressures at work and at home – the familiar brain-buzz of multitasking that is unique to the Christmas season – only to find that the big day arrives and you’ve still forgotten something. That one last present you didn’t wrap, or the batteries for that one toy that didn’t make it under the tree. Did you get enough milk at Wegmans before they closed? Probably not. How can we expect to live without Wegmans for 36 hours?

Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story (which turned 30 this year) perfected the art of looking back fondly on these types of banal holiday “mistakes” – the human foibles that seem like disasters in the moment but which quickly fade into irrelevance against the warm blanket of joy (it really is joy, isn’t it?) of being with the ones you love at Christmas. For Ralphie’s family the trials and tribulations of the season come to a hilariously cathartic head when the neighbor’s dogs destroy their Christmas turkey, leaving the family with no choice but to head out for a holiday dinner of Chinese food. There, of course, they’re serenaded by the staff with a version of “Deck the Halls” that stands out in the annals of political incorrectness.

Reportedly as Clark was shooting this scene the cast didn’t know the song was coming, and when the supporting actors began to sing, Melinda Dillon, as Ralphie’s mom, couldn’t stop laughing. Clark kept rolling through her reaction, knowing as he so obviously did that unexpected Christmas moments are just as worthy of memorializing as those that are most carefully planned. It’s all part and parcel of what makes the holiday special: a time for being with those you care about, and letting the camera roll to catch every minute.

Merry Christmas, everybody. See you at the movies.

Your Musical Advent Calendar, Part 11: “It’s a Wonderful Life.”


Everybody loves Christmas carols and everyone loves Christmas movies, but did you ever consider how your favorite films use your favorite music? Eleventh in a 12-part series.

It just isn’t Christmas without Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), which despite the reputation enjoyed by its creator for mawkish displays of “Capra-Corn” is a tale with a healthy dose of nuance. The film takes its time in showing one man’s dreams crumble and fall away as his life goes on – only to be replaced, of course, by the fulfillment of a different set of dreams that makes George Bailey “the richest man in town.”

The music in It’s a Wonderful Life is appropriately non-lavish: a duet between Bert the cop and Ernie the cab driver, serenading young lovers George and Mary (James Stewart and Donna Reed); a rollicking dance number that gives those same crazy kids a chance to fall into the high school swimming pool; and a two-part harmony arrangement of “Buffalo Gals” that proved once and for all that Stewart was an actor, not a singer. (The saddest musical moment: when George is contemplating having to stay in Bedford Falls for another four years, staring at forgotten travel brochures as a band somewhere in the distance is playing Al Jolson & Vincent Rose’s “Avalon.”)

Those numbers help to propel the plot, while their homespun sincerity complements the film’s small-town aesthetic. And the signature scene is the last one, as George is saved from ruin by the timely arrival of virtually everyone in Bedford Falls: they’ve shown up with open wallets and open hearts to lift up the man who kept them going through their own dark times. Then they all sing – first “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” then “Auld Lang Syne.” As impromptu community choirs go, they sure can carry a tune.

The Greatest “Story” Ever Told?


This article originally appeared in the December 6, 2013 Canandaigua Daily Messenger.

Most of the time when you learn something has hit a milestone anniversary, the natural reaction probably sounds like “Wow, I can’t believe it’s been so long.” But the news that A Christmas Story is turning 30 this year actually elicits a different response. Only 30? Doesn’t the movie seem much, much older than that?

On the surface this makes sense: After all, Bob Clark’s 1983 film was engineered as a nostalgia piece – a deliberate hop into the Wayback Machine for a trip to the late 1930s (the exact date is never mentioned) for a comically romanticized taste of how Christmas used to be. It felt old even when it was brand new; this was part of its innate charm.

But it also speaks to a more subtle effect of the way something can work its way into the scrapbook of our lives. When a piece of popular culture really connects with us, it can be hard to imagine a time when it didn’t exist.

Such it is with A Christmas Story, which opened Nov. 18, 1983 as just another feature at your local theater. Clark, the director, was probably enjoying the freedom to make whatever kind of movie he wanted; after all, this was only a year after he released Porky’s, a teen sex movie that earned terrible reviews and yet made lots of money. Yup, Clark had job security – and he used it to make this family-friendly holiday tale, an adaptation of a handful of short stories written years earlier by humorist Jean Shepherd.

The plot (as if you need a refresher): In a prewar Midwest town, nine-year-old Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) is not-too-patiently waiting for Christmas to arrive. A Red Ryder BB gun is on his wish list, and he has little interest in anything else (“A football? What’s a football?”). But that request is met with cruel indifference by every adult he meets, from his folks to his teacher to a department-store Santa. Apparently “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” was a popular catchphrase for its time: The “Show Me the Money” of the 1930s, I suppose.

The splendid cast and wonderful period details give grown-ups a reason to clutch this movie to their hearts. But the real reason for its staggering popularity – it long ago replaced It’s a Wonderful Life as our nation’s default holiday-movie experience – is due more to the way it takes us back to our childhood. Not from watching the movie when it first came out, but from the sense of being in the movie. There’s something universal, and timeless, in the innocent single-minded joy of that kid craving the rush of Christmas. We are Ralphie, and he is us.

Consider that this year, when you’re watching the film in one of its marathon airings on cable channel TBS (non-stop from Christmas Eve until Christmas night). But don’t blame me if you find visions of sugarplums dancing in your head.

(IMAGE: Peter Billingsley in A Christmas Story. Photo courtesy of George Eastman House.)

Your Musical Advent Calendar, Part 10: “The Bells of St. Mary’s.”

Ingrid Bergman and Bing Crosby in

Everybody loves Christmas carols and everyone loves Christmas movies, but did you ever consider how your favorite films use your favorite music? Tenth in a 12-part series.

Maybe just one more Bing Crosby number? Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) marked Crosby’s second turn at playing Father O’Malley – after winning his Best Actor Oscar for Going My Way the previous year – and this semi-sequel, with its benignly scheming nuns and subtle Christmas undertones, is still-worthy successor to the proud original. It even earned Crosby another Best Actor nomination, as well as nods for Ingrid Bergman, McCarey and more.

Bells is a sleepy movie, even by Crosby’s standards – there’s a gentleness to the pacing and the performances that’s right in keeping with a Christmas Eve screening, if you were so inclined. And while there’s nothing specifically holiday-themed about the title tune, it’s earned a place in the Christmas songbook just the same. Maybe it’s that voice, maybe it’s the delicate tinkling of the bells that opens the number. Heck, maybe it’s the fact that it’s sung by a priest and some nuns. Whatever the reason, it fits the season.

Your Musical Advent Calendar, Part 9: “Lethal Weapon.”


Everybody loves Christmas carols and everyone loves Christmas movies, but did you ever consider how your favorite films use your favorite music? Ninth in a 12-part series.

Yes, Lethal Weapon. Why Not? The movie opens with Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock,” includes action scenes in a Christmas tree lot and in a family’s holiday-bedecked living room, and closes with … well, we’ll get to that in a minute. Along with the original Die Hard, Richard Donner’s 1987 buddy-cop movie is routinely cited as ideal Christmas counter-programming – a shoot-’em-up with its heart in the right place

The film is replete with Yuletide references, but none as genuine as the final scene, in which family man Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) hosts his loose-cannon partner Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) for Christmas dinner. Their emotional arc has covered a lot of ground over the course of the film, as have Riggs’ suicidal tendencies. It didn’t happen without plenty of real suffering, of course, including kidnappings, murders, torture and the demolition of the Murtaugh family’s living room by a vengeful band of drug-dealing mercenaries.

But now peace has settled on Roger’s house, at least for the moment: as Riggs’ dog meets Murtaugh’s cat, the sounds of suburban holiday bedlam fill the audio track. Roger stops for a moment, calmly adjusting a string of lights hanging over his front door – and Elvis Presley’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” tees up as the credits roll.

Your Musical Advent Calendar, Part 8: “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”


Everybody loves Christmas carols and everyone loves Christmas movies, but did you ever consider how your favorite films use your favorite music? Eighth in a 12-part series.

Acknowledging the inclusion of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) in our collective holiday movie canon is probably akin to a foodie cringing as he drives past the “Billions Served” sign outside a McDonalds restaurant. I remember watching the film for the first time when it was released, thinking I wasted eight bucks, and going home in mild disgust. I never would have imagined back then that the film would someday be called a modern holiday classic – or, for that matter, that I would be one of those who call it that. What can I say? It grew on me. I guess sometimes we all crave McNuggets.

There’s a little more music on the Christmas Vacation soundtrack than in most contemporary holiday movies – which is ironic, because for years no soundtrack album was ever released – but the standout musical moment occurs without a doubt as Chevy Chase is gazing out his kitchen window late at night, imagining a summertime tableau starring the inground pool he desperately wants to give his family for Christmas. The scene is soon overrun with the same extended-family chaos that has infiltrated his real-life holiday household (along with a special appearance by a barely clad shopgirl who appeared early in the film), and not even “Mele Kalikimaka” by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters can ease his strife.

That definitive version of “Mele Kalikimaka” is meant to invoke oddball nostalgia in Christmas Vacation, but a few years later Curtis Hanson would use it with a straight face in his 1950s-era police noir L.A. Confidential. Context is everything, right boys?

Your Musical Advent Calendar, Part 7: “White Christmas.”


Everybody loves Christmas carols and everyone loves Christmas movies, but did you ever consider how your favorite films use your favorite music? Seventh in a 12-part series.

Musically speaking, Michael Curtiz’ White Christmas (1954) is an odd duck. The entire film was essentially a cash grab for Paramount Pictures, as the studio hoped to parlay the enormous success of Bing Crosby’s song “White Christmas” from Holiday Inn into a proper Christmas movie – which is to say, a proper Christmas moneymaker. They re-recruited Crosby for the quasi-remake, replaced Fred Astaire with Danny Kaye (after Donald O’Connor became unavailable), and perhaps most vitally brought back composer Irving Berlin to write the songs, as he had for Holiday Inn.

What could possibly go wrong? Not a thing, I suppose, unless you were expecting to catch lightning in a bottle again. White Christmas was released on Christmas Day 1954, and became the top moneymaker for that year. To this day it remains the film most often cited when movie fans are asked to name their favorite Bing Crosby holiday movie. But do you remember any of the songs that premiered in the film? (Remember, “White Christmas” doesn’t count.) I didn’t think so

To me the film’s most memorable original tune is “Snow,” an upbeat number sung by the four leads – Crosby and Kaye, with Vera Ellen and Rosemary Clooney – in the bar car of a commuter train heading to a holiday stage show in Vermont. It’s daring and fresh in a classic live-theater sort of way, and yet each time I watch the movie I get this minor rush – as if I’m hearing it for the first time. It’s like listening to the B-side of an old 45-RPM hit record (please tell me you know what I’m talking about): The song is legitimate and time-honored, but as it never made a splash outside of this limited venue, it’s never been overplayed. Even at nearly 60 years old, it still maintains the spark of the new.

As has been established in an earlier post, I’m a Holiday Inn junkie, but I have nothing bad to say about White Christmas – inferior Crosby is like inferior pizza, still pretty good. But “Snow,” in its way, is the minor composition that ironically provides the film’s major hook. It’s a twinkly good time.

“American Hustle,” Reviewed: A Solid Gold Hit of the ’70s.

Christian Bale;Jeremy Renner;Bradley Cooper

Here’s a word you don’t want to haul out too often: masterpiece. David O. Russell’s American Hustle (R – language, sexuality, violence) is a familiar meal of story tropes and characters (it’s based on a true story, for crying out loud) made new and invigorating by its chef’s uncompromising vision, and his painstaking attention to every last detail. Russell’s past successes – from Three Kings, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter to the brash misfire I (Heart) Huckabees – have all benefited from this same mix of storytelling craft and artistic confidence. But Hustle is the work of a director who figured something out between his last film and this one. Russell has come into his own, and our theaters are the richer for it.

American Hustle is a retelling of the real-life Abscam political scandal of the late 1970s, in which a clutch of U.S. congressmen were nabbed in an FBI sting of faux Arab investors and cash-stuffed briefcases. Here, the operation is the love child of two parents: Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a hyper-ambitious FBI agent who lives with his mother; and Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a professional con artist whose very hair is a testament to elaborate dishonesty. Irving is working with the FBI to avoid prison time on some low-level scams, but his presence inspires Richie to make the most of Irving’s innate skills and go for the big fish – the politicians and mobsters whose arrests will guarantee headlines and advancement.

No one is comfortable with their life in Hustle – not Irving, who’s married to one woman but in love with another; nor Richie, who has a fiancée of his own but can’t take his eyes off Sydney (Amy Adams), Irving’s longtime mistress with a pet English accent that she likes to take for long walks. Sydney also goes by Evelyn, an identity she uses as an escape hatch for troubled times – like, for instance, when she’s dragooned into helping Irving with his FBI work. Then there’s Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a loose cannon who’s not as smart as she thinks she is, and who fairly begs to be taken seriously.

Sydney, Irving and Richie target Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, NJ, as their initial mark and unwitting accomplice in their scheme to move higher up the political food chain. Carmine is a fascinating character in a movie that’s full of them: A community leader who gets on the bribe train not out of any particular sense of greed, but from a pragmatic acceptance that it’s the fastest way to make things happen in a town in need of change. During his speech at a celebratory fundraiser, Carmine’s sincerity and passion for his cause are laid bare – and made all the more quietly tragic by the fact that we know he’s going down.

It was during Carmine’s speech that I began to note the great care Russell was taking with each member of this large ensemble cast: Although the film begins and ends with Irving, American Hustle creates a sense that each character is the star of their own movie, and that we’re watching all of those movies at once. Robert Altman mastered that trick, as did Paul Thomas Anderson (whose Boogie Nights feels like a second cousin to this film). It’s a rare talent, and Russell has cracked the code.

Like any ’70s extravaganza, the film lets its wardrobe artists run wild – the wide collars, plunging necklines and over-the-top hairstyles are all good for a leer and a laugh. American Hustle lets us enjoy these jokes, and more, without subjecting its characters to ridicule. The soundtrack is a time machine, too, while also serving as a kind of solid-fuel booster: a K-Tel accelerant that adds weight to already significant moments while greasing the track to keep the cars running smoothly. The film takes its corners at full speed, giving the viewer the impression of being taken on a joyride with a supremely capable driver at the wheel. Which isn’t far from the truth.

Russell has stacked the acting deck by populating his film with some of the most interesting stars working today. These five performers create the illusion of our having known their characters well before they first show up on screen; we’re not meeting them so much as being dropped into their lives, already in progress. Bale’s portrayal is predictably bold – even with Irving’s middle-aged paunch, we can see why Sydney and Rosalyn are both so drawn to him – but I was really impressed by Lawrence’s live-wire tempestuousness, and Cooper’s manic desperation. His Richie craves a sexier, more vibrant life than helping his mom clean the filter on their aquarium. Richie can’t resist the siren call of an elaborate con or the allure of Sydney’s décolletage and long legs; eventually even manhandling his FBI supervisor (Louis C.K.) becomes internally consistent – a logical leap from an illogical man.

As a caper movie without an alpha male, American Hustle is a tone poem to the banality of real life – even when that reality includes some exciting stuff. It’s a serious comedy, an exploration of duplicity and deception as survival tools, and a master class in filmmaking. Mostly, it’s just a blast to watch. It’s the best film I’ve seen this year … or last year, for that matter.

(IMAGE: The cast of American Hustle. Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures.)

Your Musical Advent Calendar, Part 6: “Toys.”


Everybody loves Christmas carols and everyone loves Christmas movies, but did you ever consider how your favorite films use your favorite music? Sixth in a 12-part series.

Nobody talks about Barry Levinson’s Toys (1992) any more, and that’s probably as it should be, because the film was a muddled mess. But this surreal fantasia about a toy factory caught up in a philosophical tug of war – between the aggressively whimsical adult children (Robin Williams and Joan Cusack) of its founder, and their uncle, a retired general (Michael Gambon) who wants to start making war toys – came out at Christmas time, and it wanted so badly to be considered some kind of oddball holiday classic. In the world of yuletide movies, it’s the scrappy underdog who doesn’t know when he’s beaten. It’s hard not to love it, just a little.

Two things will always stand out in my memory of Toys, which I watched and reviewed in my first couple of months as a paid critic. (Nostalgia comes in all forms.) One was the Oscar-nominated art direction by Fernando Scarfiotti – bold brilliant colors, and a palette inspired by the blue-sky masterpieces of Rene Magritte. The other was its final song, an original number written by Prince protégés Wendy and Lisa called “The Closing of the Year.” Like the film, it’s astonishingly overproduced and features every sentimental heartstring-tugger imaginable – there’s even a children’s chorus summoned at one point to deliver an aw-shucks crescendo. But at its heart is a simple message of faith and hope, issued with a haunting, ethereal authority that sounds exactly like I imagine music must sound like as it faintly echoes across a nighttime field of snow.