Monthly Archives: November 2014

Kringle All The Way.

This piece – about my perennial pick for the most appropriate first Christmas film to watch each year – was originally published in December 2001 in the Messenger Post papers.

Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn in "Miracle on 34th Street." (File photo)

Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn in “Miracle on 34th Street.” (File photo)

Quick – name the first old-fashioned Christmas movie that comes to mind. (No, don’t look at the photo.) You’re thinking of It’s a Wonderful Life, right? Sure, that’s the classic, the Jimmy-Stewart-George-Bailey-broken-down-building-and-loan-dance-by-the-light-of-the-moon-angels-get-their-wings holiday weeper. Fifty-one years old, that one picture carries on the Frank Capra legacy almost as effectively as all the other films he made combined.

But if that film is the Hertz Rent-A-Car of holiday films, Miracle on 34th Street (unrated, consider it PG) is Avis: number two, and – especially in this, its own golden anniversary year – trying harder. “It’s a Wonderful Life” will make its annual appearance December 20 on NBC-TV, and millions of viewers will tune in, as usual. But the following night, take a break from wrapping presents and head over to the George Eastman House, where an 8pm screening of Miracle will be presented – an early present if ever there was one.

Based on a short story by Valentine Davies, Miracle on 34th Street has at its heart a fable of such simple, incorruptible sweetness that it actually improves with the passage of time. (Compare that to the labels of “Capracorn” periodically thrown at Capra’s work – cynical snickers in the face of Midwestern homilies.)

The story begins as Doris, an independent career woman – and single mom (!) – who organizes the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, catches her parade Santa Claus tippling from a hip flask minutes before his float is set to ride through midtown Manhattan. As luck would have it (uh huh), another  white-bearded fellow happens by just in time for Doris to recruit him. He’s such a hit as jolly old saint Nick, in fact, that she hires him on for the rest of the season – and only raises an eyebrow when the old man starts telling people that he really is the one and only Kris Kringle.

If there’s a downside to living in the shadow of an undisputed titan, it might be that everyone holds the top dog in reverence but assumes number two is easy pickings – hence the untouchability of the original It’s a Wonderful Life, while Miracle has had to endure two ham-handed remakes (so far). Twenty-six years after the original was released, a made-for-TV version cast a bland Jane Alexander as Doris; more-mannequin-than-man David Hartman (once of “Good Morning, America”) as Bill, her would-be boyfriend; and an unknown Suzanne Davidson as Susie, Doris’ daughter.

Every version of the story pivots on the relationship between Kris and Susie – the old man who teaches the young girl how to be a young girl, by using her imagination – and the 1973 edition at least had a strong Santa in Sebastian Cabot. With him in charge, the wobbly remake managed at least to keep its heart in the right place.

Not so, sadly, for the more recent big-budget version. 1994’s Miracle, perhaps fine for folks who’d never seen the first two, discards the amiable sentimentality of Davies’ story for a two-dimensional good-vs.-evil yarn. This time, Kris’ temporary downfall (no one believes he’s really Santa, so the lovable coot is shipped off to a sanitarium) is staged by a rival department store chain, and masterminded by a hand-wringing Euro-accented villain (Joss Ackland) who’d seem more at home fighting James Bond than Santa Claus.

No, it’s the 1947 film – with its marvelous synthesis of acting, directing, and script – that stands the test of time. Maureen O’Hara brings just the right balance of steel and vulnerability to Doris, while a young Natalie Wood and a grown John Payne offer flesh-and-blood takes on Susie and Bill. As Kris, Edmund Gwenn found the role of his life, and won an Academy Award for his trouble (along with Davies and writer/director George Seaton).

Accept no substitutes: For melodrama-free family fare, the original Miracle on 34th Street is as worthwhile as they come. I’ll bet even Jimmy Stewart watched it once or twice – after his movie, of course.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1,” Reviewed: Panem Penultimata.

Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence in "Mockingjay, Part 1." (Lionsgate)

Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence in “Mockingjay, Part 1.” (Lionsgate)

Here are a couple of Thanksgiving tips: Spatchcock your bird – it’ll cook faster and more evenly, freeing up precious oven time for all those delicious side dishes. Also, don’t go see The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (rated PG-13). Or at least, put it off until this time next year, when you can watch it consecutively with Part 2. As with making home-cooked gravy, your patience will be rewarded.

When The Hunger Games arrived on the big screen in 2012, it represented the first modern example of how to make a great teen-dystopian film – and that object lesson couldn’t have arrived at a better time, because in its wake we’ve seen a steady stream of would-be successors (Divergent, The Giver, The Maze Runner, etc.) whose makers seem eager to show us how hard it really is to make one of these films right. The first Hunger was sleek in its storytelling; it understood how to incorporate character into action sequences, and the power of a quiet moment to punctuate loud ones.

Two films later, all I can say about the series is that it knows how to make money. Last year’s sequel Catching Fire was fine, in a let’s-keep-things-moving sort of way, but so far Mockingjay is a leaden bore – and most of the problem is owed to that nasty little “Part 1” added to the title. In a blatant cash grab (one that leverages the precedent set by the Twilight and Harry Potter franchises), producers have opted to bifurcate the final installment in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy – so that a book just one page longer than Catching Fire must take up two films instead of one. It’ll sell more tickets, but at the expense of the lean, supple filmmaking that has distinguished the series to date.

Ironically, that kind of behind-the-scenes audience manipulation is the exact plot of the movie itself. After the gladiatorial Hunger Games of the first two films have exploded into sociopolitical chaos, the futuristic society of Panem is now teetering on the brink of rebellion, with a band of insurgents led by President Coin (Julianne Moore) calculating the best way to inspire the masses to revolt against the decadent corrupt Capital and its leader, President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The rebels have chosen teen hero Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as their telegenic face, and media whiz Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his final performance) is tasked with creating a series of Katniss-centric propaganda films that will stir the pot of revolution.

The bulk of the film, then, is given over to show-prep: arranging set pieces and planning strategy for a catharsis that’s still one film away. There’s a lot of filler here – lingering shots of flying ships slowly taking off and landing, languorous pans across landscapes of rubble, and way too much time spent on a cat belonging to Katniss’ kid sister – that could have been cut back to include whatever’s going to happen in Part 2. An overlong three-hour movie that ended the saga in one fell swoop would have been preferable to this meandering, melodramatic slog.

Diehard fans of the franchise may enjoy having the tension drawn out, but I suspect most audiences will see this for what it is – stalling, and stretching the narrative past its ability to retain its elasticity. If you’re really into the experience of watching Katniss & Krew overthrow the evil Capital (not a spoiler, just a guess), waiting until next year to watch Parts 1 and 2 of Mockingjay will probably be much more rewarding. In the meantime, you can re-channel your energies into making that perfect gravy.

Hallmark Holiday Movies: ’Tis the Season?

Note: This column originally ran in the November 15, 2013 Canandaigua Daily Messenger.

Kellie Martin and Cameron Mathison in "The Christmas Ornament." (Hallmark)

Kellie Martin and Cameron Mathison in “The Christmas Ornament.” (Hallmark)

Do we really need a little Christmas, right this very minute? Evidently the folks at the Hallmark Channel think so.

Families across America were barely finished dispensing Halloween candy when the network kicked off what has become an annual tradition: weekend-long marathons, from now through New Year’s, of an ever-increasing catalog of made-for-TV holiday movies.

If you have basic cable you may have seen one over the years – or two, or six – since Hallmark began churning out these cinematic stocking stuffers with a frequency Santa’s elves would envy. The practice dates back to 2002, when four original movies aired on that channel each week in December – though without the trademark plot points that distinguish today’s modern entries.

What plot points, you ask? Let’s just say that Hallmark never met a stressed-out, Type-A career woman who couldn’t benefit from a lesson concerning The True Meaning Of Christmas. This often involves being stranded in a small but charming town, where she meets a frustrating but charming stranger whose laid-back but charming demeanor add up to the last thing she wanted … and just what she needed! The genders may switch from movie to movie, but you get the drift.

Among the 12 (yes, 12) new Hallmark movies debuting through the end of next month, we can look forward to Let it Snow, about a driven hotel executive ordered to turn an old-fashioned ski lodge into a modern winter monstrosity; The Christmas Ornament, in which a widow tries not celebrating Christmas as a way of avoiding thoughts of her late husband; and Fir Crazy, the story of a busy woman who has no time for the holidays – until she must trade her fancy office for a new job in a Christmas tree lot.

And when I say “we” can look forward to them, I’m not kidding. Here’s my dirty secret: They’ve grown on me. Last year I consumed them like eggnog – a comparison that holds up pretty well, when you consider the sticky-sweet aftertaste shared by both.

The truth is, for all their hackneyed morals, cookie-cutter stories and easy sentiment, there’s a comforting nostalgia about these guilty pleasures that offer a paper-thin veneer of holiday cheer (just like a Hallmark greeting card, now that I think about it). You can watch them while shopping online or wrapping presents. You can watch them with ironic disdain, as I once did. But once you start watching them, you might just find you can’t stop.

They’ll never replace true Christmas movie classics – look for a column on those next month – but when viewed in moderation, the Hallmark holiday films have earned a little respect.

Maybe we don’t need a little Christmas, right this very minute. Or maybe we do.

“Whiplash,” Reviewed: Something Wicked This Way Drums.

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in "Whiplash." (Sony Pictures Classics)

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash.” (Sony Pictures Classics)

To Sir, With Love, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Dead Poets Society: Influential teachers have been the stuff of classic films forever. But Terence Fletcher, the conductor of an elite music school’s premier jazz ensemble, owes more to a different vein of old-school movie characters – the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, perhaps, or maybe even Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

Whiplash (rated R) isn’t a horror film – not exactly. But as played with haunting intensity by the familiar character actor J.K. Simmons (“The Wire”), Fletcher’s mentor inspires awe and dread among his pupils: He’s a truly malevolent force – Hurricane Fletcher – who emotionally devastates his students in the name of helping them fulfill their potential. And he clearly loves his work.

Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Damien Chazelle, Whiplash was the darling of this year’s Sundance Film Festival and wowed audiences in Toronto back in September. It’s the story of Andrew (Miles Teller), a driven drum student who is intent on becoming one of the all-time greats – his idol is midcentury jazz legend Buddy Rich – and who treasures his admission to the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory as a way of making that dream come true.

Shaffer, we’re told, is the country’s top music school, and Fletcher’s invitation-only ensemble is its esteemed inner circle where the best of the best play, as a prelude to careers in jazz. The imperious conductor trolls the school’s classrooms, looking for new potential members; when he recruits Andrew after an impromptu audition, the student envisions a fast track to jazz history. What he gets instead is nothing short of torture: In his first rehearsal, Fletcher throws a chair at Andrew when he fails to meet the conductor’s seemingly impossible standards. He screams at another player’s face until the student runs crying from the room. And that’s just day one.

Pre-Fletcher, Andrew is already laser-focused on artistic success; he grips his drumsticks hard enough to make his hands bleed, and he pre-emptively breaks up with a new girlfriend (Melissa Benoist of TV’s “Glee”) because he expects down the road she’ll distract him from his practicing. But in seeking the approval of his new teacher, the student enters into something closely akin to a masochistic relationship – with Fletcher’s sadistically abusive behavior amplifying the teen’s worst impulses.

In fact, that one aspect of the film is underdeveloped: Whiplash focuses so intently on Fletcher’s animalistic rehearsal-room savagery that it overlooks a proper exploration of what it is about Andrew that makes him stick around for all that punishment. But if Andrew’s inner demons are only implied, what Chazelle does bring to the screen is still absolutely riveting – especially a performance from Simmons of astonishing power, one that’s sure to earn the actor his first Oscar nomination.

I wouldn’t wish a teacher like Fletcher on my worst classroom enemy. But Whiplash is worth seeking out – and impossible to forget.

From the Archives – “Mystic River,” Reviewed: Time and Punishment.

Note: I’m off to Boston this weekend for a quick vacation, and when I think of Boston I think of Kane’s Donuts and film adaptations of Dennis Lehane books. Here’s a review I wrote in 2003.

Sean Penn (center) in "Mystic River." (Warner Bros.)

Sean Penn (center) in “Mystic River.” (Warner Bros.)

Clint Eastwood’s directorial career, technically only 32 years old (beginning with Play Misty for Me in 1971), has some very old bones. His signature style – economical camera work, thoughtful pauses, metronomic pacing – has long befit the septuagenarian he only recently became. Of course he’s done his best work since hitting retirement age: Eastwood’s direction has been waiting for his body to catch up.

Mystic River (rated R), a noted improvement over his recent journeyman efforts (Absolute Power, True Crime), is a good example of how that style can work. Staying behind the scenes this time allowed Eastwood to concentrate on the long-fermented emotions of Dennis Lehane’s wrenching 2001 novel. It’s a film for actors, not movie stars: Eastwood’s iconic glare would be out of place on screen, but he makes a powerful contribution just the same.

Set in working-class Boston, Mystic River (painstakingly adapted by Brian Helgeland) deals with a trio of boyhood friends who encounter a trauma that dogs each of them well into adulthood. Eleven-year-olds Jimmy, Sean, and Dave are playing curbside when a car pulls up; a guy – he could be a cop – takes Dave into “custody,” and the boy disappears for four harrowing days.

A quarter century later, each man still deals with that incident – and for Jimmy and Sean, the question of what if they had gotten into that car? – differently. Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a state police detective abandoned by his wife and trapped by his straight-arrow leanings while Dave (Tim Robbins), a shell of a man, barely connects with his family. Only ex-con-turned-grocer Jimmy (Sean Penn) seems content – until the morning his 19-year-old daughter misses church, and is later found shot and beaten to death.

The murder reunites the men: Sean investigates, Jimmy grieves (and swears revenge on those responsible), and Dave has some explaining to do – like, how did he get those bruises on his hand the night the girl was killed? But the mystery is secondary to a probing examination of how these men deal with their pain; how their families are kept on the outside looking in; and how their sins – even those simply visited upon them – have the power to irreparably taint their futures.

The film isn’t perfect: Eastwood’s deliberate direction nicely mimics the investigative plodding but suffocates the drama, and Helgeland’s screenplay, overly reverential of Lehane’s novel, features too many highly literate speeches that are show-stoppers in the worst sense. But the acting across the board is very fine (look for Penn to snag an Oscar nomination) in this Hollywood film that actually has something to say. We should be grateful Eastwood decided to play Mystic for us.

“Interstellar,” Reviewed: Larger Than Life. (Longer and Louder, Too.)

Matthew McConaughey in "Interstellar." (Paramount Pictures)

Matthew McConaughey in “Interstellar.” (Paramount Pictures)

Having proved himself to Hollywood with his Batman trilogy, Christopher Nolan can presumably make pretty much any movie he wants. So with Interstellar (rated PG-13), a nearly three-hour science-fiction epic that he wrote with his brother, Jonathan, it’s safe to say we’re seeing the true vision of the filmmaker – for better and, occasionally, for worse.

At its core, the spectacular Interstellar, very much in the Nolan tradition, is a bleak story about optimism. The film takes place in an undefined near future, when Earth and humanity have seen better days: Governments have crumbled, along with the world’s economy and, worst of all, our agricultural infrastructure. We’re struggling as a species to stay alive. It’s up to Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former pilot and astronaut, to lead a mission to save the day – by trying to find a new planet to sustain life.

Or, as his mentor Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) says, “We’re not meant to save the Earth. We’re meant to leave it.”

The mammoth scope of this quest is not lost on Nolan – in fact, it’s clearly the point of the film. Our galaxy has no suitable planets, but NASA has found a interstellar wormhole that allows Cooper’s team to travel light years of space in a seemingly short time. Due to the vagaries of physics, however, different pathways taken by the astronauts may take just hours for them while many years pass back on Earth. For Cooper, this complicates his quest: He has two teenagers at home, and he wants to save them, not just the human race in general. For that matter, will he ever see his kids again?

With these emotional stakes established, Interstellar takes us on a wild ride – a space-and-time-bending trek whose eye-popping appeal occasionally suggests nothing less than the staggering grandeur of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nolan shot roughly an hour of the picture using large-format IMAX film, and if you watch it in that format you’ll be hard-pressed to suppress the word “Wow” from your vocabulary. (I’m sure it’s impressive in a traditional theater, but see it in IMAX if you can.)

Unfortunately, that same emphasis on visual wonder doesn’t always extend to other aspects of the film. For one thing, the sound mix is frustratingly bad at times, with entire exchanges between characters lost under Hans Zimmer’s impressive score or even the roar of rocket engines. And when we can hear the dialogue, sometimes we may wish we couldn’t: Some of the more obvious conversations between the astronaut team (whose members include Anne Hathaway) are distracting and not nearly as profound as they seem to think.

Through it all, though, McConaughey does an admirable job of maintaining a relatable human element: We believe in him, and we root for his desperate need to balance mankind’s needs against his own. Interstellar has its flaws, but they’re not enough to alter the fundamental trajectory of its director’s mission. Like his onscreen hero, Christopher Nolan has a singular goal – to knock our socks off. And in many important ways, he succeeds.

Is “Interstellar” A Teachable Moment?

Jessica Chastain in "Interstellar." (Paramount)

Jessica Chastain in “Interstellar.” (Paramount)

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar has arrived, and my review appears in today’s Daily Messenger (look for it next week in the Post weeklies and this blog). My opinion notwithstanding, the jury is still out on whether audiences will flock to Nolan’s gargantuan sci-fi epic or scratch their heads wondering if they’ve just paid $10 a head to hear the world’s most dazzling presentation on theoretical physics.

What can’t be disputed about Interstellar is that it brings up heavy subjects that are normally only bandied about in classrooms, or on PBS: wormholes, the theory of relativity, gravitational anomalies, ecological Armageddon and how far a truck can drive on a flat tire. In fact, the science element is so pervasive that advance discussion in the media has almost exclusively focused on the question of scientific accuracy:

  • The Guardian found an expert who “was expecting more science in Interstellar, as opposed to science fiction,” and who found the film “fragile in terms of physics.”
  • Smithsonian magazine disagreed, saying it “Belongs in the Pantheon of the Best ‘Realistic’ Science Fiction Films.”
  • “Interstellar Black Hole is Best Black Hole in Sci-Fi,” says Discovery News, who went on to point out that the film kept a noted theoretical physicist, Kip Thorne, on set as a science advisor.
  • Over at Slate, the “Bad Astronomy” blog took aim at the film’s allegedly sloppy science, attacking plot points such as the notion that planets could orbit a black hole. “You kinda need a star for that,” writes the author in serious eye-rolling mode.
  • The Washington Post, ever the mediator, addressed the controversy without weighing in too heavily, but included a science primer that would help prep audiences for the experience of watching the film. (Because if there’s one thing that’ll spice up date night, it’s hitting the textbooks before you go out.)

So who’s right? How would I know? I took a year of physics in high school, mostly because the teacher made the class fun. My closest exposure to hard-science discussions in modern life is watching The Big Bang Theory (which, like Interstellar, features an heroic everyman named Cooper).

More to the point, I don’t care – and neither should most people. Interstellar’s quality does not hinge on its scientific accuracy. Nolan and his cast and crew are committed to entertainment, not education, and people who love or hate the film because of how accurately it depicts a black hole are, in my opinion, missing the point.

Leaving the theater after my screening, I commented that the film felt like those who made it took the science seriously, and I stand by that. Nolan and Co. obviously put a lot of thought into how science would play a role in Interstellar, and that deliberacy paid off: Within the context of the film, I believed in its presentation of Einsteinian principles and the bending of space/time. That doesn’t mean they got the science right, and it certainly doesn’t make me any smarter about theoretical physics. But it made the experience of watching the movie more enjoyable. Which, as far as the purpose of their film goes, represents a mission: accomplished.

I don’t want to suggest that films shouldn’t be faithful to real life if possible. But all films exist in their own universe, in a way, and the filmmakers have the luxury of bending the rules of reality to make the best movies they possibly can. Whether it’s the science of Interstellar, the math of A Beautiful Mind, the history of JFK or even the martial arts of The Karate Kid, the primary agenda of a film is to dazzle us, not educate us. If it can do both, that’s a nice bonus. But that’s all it is.

“Nightcrawler,” Reviewed: Through A Lens, Darkly.

Jake Gyllenhaal in "Nightcrawler." (Open Road Films)

Jake Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler.” (Open Road Films)

If Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (rated R) is a love letter to Los Angeles and television news, that letter is written with letters cut out from newspapers and magazines – like a ransom note from an unhinged stalker. There’s a jittery mania to the proceedings, an edge of barely controlled overenthusiasm, that suggests too many nights with too little sleep and too much caffeine. Like its lead character, the film is streamlined, determined and unforgettable – but you’ll still want to shower after you meet it.

Much of the film’s success is borne on the bony shoulders of Lou Bloom, a misfit creation from the mind and emaciated body of Jake Gyllenhaal. Lou is a sociopath, and Gilroy’s film (he also wrote the screenplay) makes a strong, dispassionate argument for that mental state being sadly effective in getting ahead in one’s chosen career. We first meet Lou in the act of stealing scrap metal at night, and dispatching a security guard who tries to stop him; Lou notices the guard’s fancy wristwatch before he assaults the watchman, and the film periodically checks in on Lou’s wrist, where the ill-fitting watch dangles like a gaudy trophy of an early kill.

But Nightcrawler isn’t a thriller in that sense. Almost immediately Lou finds the work he was born to do, when he stumbles upon a car crash and is transfixed by the adrenalized professionalism he sees in the freelance camera crews that descend upon the human carnage to scoop up images to be sold to the evening news. You can see Lou thinking, I can do this; and before long he’s surfing the channels of a cheap police scanner and racing around town with the best – or the worst – of them.

Gilroy, a journeyman screenwriter (Two For the Money, The Bourne Legacy) making his directorial debut, has nothing new to say about the deplorable “If it bleeds, it leads” mantra of our electronic news age. What’s different is how he says it – with lenswork that depicts nighttime Los Angeles with the same glittering feverishness found in Michael Mann’s best films – and in his onscreen mouthpiece for that borrowed philosophy of media misanthropy. As Lou, Gyllenhaal is an alien creature poured awkwardly into human skin: Armed with zero social skills save for those he’s absorbed from self-help websites, he skitters into the frame and disarms everyone he meets with a transparent agenda and an unblinking gaze. Lou sees everything, making him an eager student of whatever he chooses to study and the ultimate spectator at the scene of a violent crime. He’s definitively creepy – the kind of creepy that gets noticed at Oscar time.

The peril of having such a dynamic central character, of course, is that everyone else around him will seem flat. In that, Rene Russo saves the day as an overnight news producer for the number-three L.A. station who doesn’t have time to be repulsed by Lou or his antics; in fact, she tutors him – until the pupil quickly turns the tables on the mentor, and dangles increasingly lurid footage in front of her face until she gives him what he wants. Like too many women of a certain age, Russo has had a tough time in Hollywood in recent years, but she contributes the strongest work of her career as a career woman who’s been so ground down by fear and eroding professional ethics that she can’t tell what a toxic partnership looks like until it’s too late. Nightcrawler is far from perfect, but with these two performances against a captivating perspective of the tainted City of Angels, it’s hard not to describe it as a must-see.