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06/18/2016

Editor and publisher: Reining in Mr. Write

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Colin Firth, left, as Max Perkins and Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe in "Genius." (Marc Brenner/Roadside Attractions)

In the movie industry and in film critic circles, there's a term called a parking lot movie.

That's a film so good, so compelling or so thought provoking that movie-goers emerge from the creative darkness of a theater into the harsh bright light of reality and talk -- and perhaps argue -- about what they have just witnessed all the way to the car.

Genius, the dramatic verbal sparring match between early 20th century novelist Thomas Wolfe and his editor-publisher Max Perkins, drove me far beyond the aforementioned parking lot.  For the greater part of this morning, I've thrown myself into digging deeper into this volatile relationship between one of the most important writers of his lifetime and the word master who published and molded his work into Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River.

Pairing accomplished British actors Jude Law and Colin Firth perfectly as Americans Wolfe and Perkins, Genius dares to stick closely to something rare in a based-on-truth night at the movies:  truth.  We can thank a trio of filmmakers for that.  The movie is based on A. Scott Berg's biography Max Perkins:  Editor of Genius.  Berg spent nearly a decade developing his Princeton University senior thesis on Perkins into the biography.  Gifted screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, Any Given Sunday, Hugo) has fought to get this film to the screen for 20 years.

As for first-time director Michael Grandage, also from Great Britain, the respected actor-playwright has the most difficult task of all; combining all the elements into a cohesive biography of two towering forces of literature who may have been forgotten, or almost forgotten by too many.

I like the way Grandage doesn't feel the need to mention the Great Depression in words in this drama set partly in 1929.  His scene where Wolfe and Perkins walk down a New York street and encounter a soup line for the first time suffices nicely.

Genius is a clash-of-the-titans extravaganza not of swords, sorcerers and special effects, but of words.  I can assure you the battles here are just as grisly.  Every word or phrase lost by the loud, grandiose young author who writes furiously in pencil using the top of a refrigerator as his desk wounds Wolfe deeply.

Jude lays the Law down with rare, bombastic abandon as Wolfe, challenging, befriending and fighting with expertly skilled Charles Scribner's Sons editor-wordsmith Perkins.

Firth has the tougher acting chore as the editor who has previously worked with  novelist titans F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) and Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms).   The best actor Academy Award winner for The King's Speech in 2010 perfectly corrals Perkins' quiet demeanor into a wordsmith who doesn't just correct spelling and grammar.

Perkins was perhaps the first truly great editor-collaborator.  His keen sense of story structure and ability to pare down phrases to their true essence is at first celebrated by Wolfe, who delivers his second manuscript to Perkins' office in several crates.  The novel that would eventually become  Of Time and the River originally numbered 5,000 pages.

It's not easy for women to stand out in a male-dominated movie.  However, Laura Linney (The Truman Show) and Nicole Kidman (an Oscar winner for The Hours) make the most of their screen time as Perkins' devoted wife and Wolfe's mentally unstable mentor/lover.

It's probably no accident that Genius arrives in movie theaters on Father's Day weekend.  Wolfe's writing, especially in Look Homeward, Angel, was, in his own words, "the search for the father of our spirit."  Perkins, the father of five daughters, nurtures Wolfe at times like the son he never had but always longed for.

If I can fault Genius for anything, it's for trying too hard to include all the elements of the Wolfe/Perkins relationship.  Fitzgerald weaves in and out of the story fairly effectively, but Hemingway's inclusion, brief and sporadic, seems tossed in just to include his weighty novelist reputation.

That's a small flaw, indeed.  Any movie that compels us to want to learn more about the real people behind the characters, is a must-see for everyone. 

Beyond that, Genius is an exciting journey and a true joy for anyone who respects writers and loves the power of words.

From this aisle seat, sublimely crafted words are the real special effects.

MPAA rating: PG-13 ( Some thematic elements and suggestive content)

104 minutes

Jalapeño rating:  3½ (out of 4)

     

03/25/2016

'Batman v Superman' -- Superheroes, superbattle, superboredom

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Why can't these guys just get along? (Courtesy: Warner Bros.)

Look, up on the screen, it’s Superman and Batman!

On second thought, don’t bother.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the umpteenth Batman or Superman big screen adventure, is straight out of the What Else Can We Contrive to Make Big Bucks Department.

Two DC Comics superheroes battling and rolling around in the mud with the ferocity of teeth-clinched, squabbling presidential candidates?  At first I didn’t get it all.  After a little research, it seems that the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight have gone at it before in the comic book pages.

A lot of times, in fact.  But now that I get it, I don’t want it.

Ben Affleck, who can act despite some poor project choices (Gigli, Jersey Girl), does all he can for a guy trapped behind a Batman mask and limited to a seething guttural growl most of the time.  Batman to Superman: “Tell me, do you bleed?  You will.”

British actor Henry Cavill, back in the cape and with a big S on his chest after Man of Steel, has the chiseled facial features commonly associated with Superman.  Cavill’s lack of even a trace of facial flexibility, however, makes me think of him more as The Man of Rock.

This film’s two best actors, Amy Adams (American Hustle) and Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), do all they can to make the most of their screen time.  In a film where digital set pieces dominate, though, Lois Lane (Adams) and a young Lex Luthor (Eisenberg) are used merely as brief buffers to move things along to the next mega-rumble in the cement jungles of Metropolis and Gotham City.    

Honestly, I even cringe a little at the title.  Batman v Superman?  Are we to believe this is some kind of legal battle before the Supreme Court?  Nope, just a little clever title trickery from our friends in Hollywood, who, by the way, would like very much for you to spend your money and one tick over two and a-half hours of your life watching Batman and Superman throw each other through walls in the rain.

Zack Snyder (300), back in the Superguy director’s chair after Man of Steel three years ago, does an OK job of stringing together explosive special-effects set pieces.  But’s that’s all we’ve got here, except for a little monster mashing that’s been done often and better in other fight-to-the-finish extravaganzas like the Transformers franchise.

I’m thinking the best battles may have occurred in the writer’s room.  Hard to believe, I know, but there may have been one.  Chris Terrio, an Academy Award winner for his Argo script, which starred Affleck in 2012, and Davis S. Goyer, who penned Man of Steel and other Batman flicks, are credited as screenwriters here.

If you’re hoping for even a trace of character depth, plot development or more than a smattering of dialogue to explain what the fuss is all about, don’t bother looking in this sky or lighting up the Bat Signal.

Call this one Batman v Superman:  Yawn of Justice.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (violent action, some sensuality)

151 minutes

Jalapeño rating:  1½ (out of 4)

03/18/2016

Field plows into frumpy, fantasizing 'Doris'

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Sally Field as the title character in "Hello, My Name Is Doris." Seacia Para/Roadside Attractions

Generally speaking, when an extraordinarily gifted actress like Sally Field, a two-time Academy Award winner (Norma Rae, Places in the Heart), is out front, a film is strong enough to warrant a trip to the neighborhood movie house.

That’s almost the case with "Hello, My Name Is Doris," but not quite.

Field, nominated for a third Oscar as Mary Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln in 2012, pours her acting soul into Doris. She’s a 60-something New Yorker from Staten Island who has just lost her mother and now must fend for herself at work, with her friends and, perhaps most importantly, when she’s alone.

Not unlike Doris, however, there’s just too much baggage in this layered comic-drama for even a gifted pro like Field to carry herself. Doris is not just conflicted, as any lonely woman in her 60s might be after losing her closest human contact (her mother).

In many ways, Doris is still a teenager in her mind, even though she’s nearing retirement age at the office where she keeps accounts in a cubicle that can barely contain her volatile angst. Let’s just say her path to happiness and mental stability is as cluttered as her home, where she throws a fit when relatives and a psychologist try to get her to part with a hoarded single snow ski she has no use for.

There’s enough going on in Hello, My Name Is Doris to suggest that Field would have a Field day (if you’ll pardon the pun) rumbling through the mental mess that is her title character. Unfortunately, this tale of an aging wallflower desperate to blossom into a relationship with the handsome young new art director named Max (John Fremont) careens off into something that’s a little bit Walter Mitty (an uncontrollable fantasizer) and a lot made-for-TV movie material.

Director Michael Showalter, who also co-wrote the script, is working with material first explored in an eight-minute NYU student film. Expanded to 90 minutes, however, Hello, My Name Is Doris runs out of creative gas, much like so many of those funny Saturday Night Live skits that died on the feature-film vine.

Field is fine, more than fine, in fact. She jumps into the lovable frump bag that is Doris body and soul. There are no complaints from this aisle seat about Fremont, currently starring on the small screen as Schmidt opposite Zooey Deschanel on the Fox sitcom New Girl. And it’s fun to see Tyne Daly as Roz, a steadfast best friend to Doris.

Unfortunately, Hello, My Name Is Doris is not constantly compelling enough to live on eccentricity alone on the big screen. It might play well on TV in prime time, but somewhere down the list of cable channels that attend more to matters of the heart than matters of essential cinema.

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MPAA rating: R (profanity)
90 minutes
Jalapeño rating: 2½ (out of 4)

03/08/2016

'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,' an intoxicating war drama

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Lance Cpl. Andrew Coughlin (Evan Jonigkeit) and Kim Baker (Tina Fey) use their weapons of choice in a "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" firefight. (Paramount Pictures)

Here’s my only real beef with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: It’s a witty, gritty war-correspondent drama posing, or more appropriately being marketed, as a comedy, which it is not.

Is it because Tina Fey, one of our most gifted comedians, is out front as a stateside cable news producer thrown into the explosive turmoil of the Afghanistan war zone in the early 2000s?

Could it be because the co-directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, co-wrote the hilarious darkly comic Bad Santa and aimed for something like the late Robert Altman’s comic-war drama MASH of 1970?

Well, “Atten-hut,” film-making soldiers. What you have marched to the screen here is a superbly nuanced drama (with occasional comic turns, granted) about a cable news desk jockey.

Kim Baker (Fey) is a producer so mired down in a life where she “writes news copy for dumb pretty people to read” that she’s willing to venture to a war-torn country where fecal matter actually permeates the air. She’s not quite as emotionally bottomed-out as Tom Hanks’ character was when he agreed to leap into a fiery volcano in Joe Versus the Volcano (1990), but she’s close.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is based on print journalist Kim Barker’s 400-page The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Screenwriter Robert Carlock, an Emmy winner for his work on NBC’s 30 Rock, which also starred Fey, focuses on the author’s sometimes horrifying adventures in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

Baker, asked point blank by fellow war correspondent Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie of Focus and The Wolf of Wall Street) if she can borrow Baker’s video crew for sex, is tossed first into the Fun House, a sex, booze and caustic comic dormitory of sorts for war reporters, then the war itself. Fitting in as a seasoned journalist is out of the question at first. She marches off to war with a bright orange backpack and fatigues that still have a store label on the pants leg.

But a funny thing happens once Whiskey Tango Foxtrot gets past all the slightly irritating stabs at dark war comedy. A beautiful drama emerges. Fey, as so many comedians are, turns out to be a superb dramatic actor. She plants her feet solidly in this conflicted character who becomes a seasoned war reporter in a hurry and may just become a little too intoxicated by the rush of real explosive danger.

In fact, this is a film overflowing with funny folks who are also gifted dramatic actors. Billy Bob Thornton, who played (and will play again next Christmas) the title character in Bad Santa, is outstanding here as Marine Col. Walter Hollanek, a leader with a constant 2,000-yard stare and a devotion to his men and duty.

Even though this film was shot in New Mexico, it captures the filth, the poverty, the desperation and the conflict of the Middle East extremely well. One of the things it does best is reveal Baker’s view of what she witnessed there as a journalist embedded in the chaos.

Extremely gifted actor Alfred Molina (Love is Strange) is so immersed in his character of budding government official Ali Massoud Sadiq that he’s almost impossible to recognize. Up-and-comer Christopher Abbott (A Most Violent Year) might just find that his performance as Fahim Ahmadzai, Baker’s fixer (interview arranger) is a catapult to stardom.

Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit series), as flirty, quick-witted photographer Iain MacKelpie, and Fey create some real screen magic as two lost souls flailing about trying to find some direction in their lives amid the madness of war.

Despite the fact that the filmmakers even make a feeble inside joke with the first letters of the military lingo title, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (You get it, right?), this film excels as what it is; an extremely well-acted drama about flawed humans fighting to keep even a loose grip on humanity.

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MPAA rating: R (pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use and violent war images)
111 minutes
Jalapeño rating: 3½ (out of 4)

01/12/2016

Joy and 'Joy,' my review, to the world

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Jennifer Lawrence takes aim at becoming a successful entrepreneur in "Joy." (Google.com)

A quick note about joy, that inner-tingling feeling of delight, and Joy, the award-winning movie.

It is my pleasure to inform anyone who doesn't already know that The Senior Voice is now a dual North Texas publication serving both Dallas and Fort Worth with separate issues.

That makes the circulation of Carol Butler's soon-to-be-monthly brainchild to bring news, features and other articles of interest to seniors and those who deal with that special section of the population to a whopping 100,000.

It's an exciting new year for Carol and the staff, which includes this semi-humble scribe as the film columnist/critic.

The (soon-to-be) monthly format will allow more access to timely movie releases.  We'll start the film review party with Joy, which earned Jennifer Lawrence, its star, a Golden Globe award as best performance by an actress in a motion picture - comedy or musical Sunday night in Los Angeles.

My review begins thusly:

Watching Joy, the mesmerizing dysfunctional family drama-with-comedy starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper, this thought kept running through my mind:

“Is there anything Jennifer Lawrence can’t do?”

Click here to read my full Joy review.  And, while you're on the Senior Voice website, take a little time to look around at a new major player in North Texas media.

   

11/10/2014

Long-suffering love, longer suffering film-making

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Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer on a mission to fulfill a bucket-list wish as the title characters in "Elsa & Fred." (indiewire.com)

Early on in the so-called "romantic-comedy" Elsa & Fred, which co-stars extremely capable actors Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer, Plummer's character, an 80-year-old recent widower, says, "I seem alive, but I'm already dead."

The same could be said for director Michael Radford's Americanized remake of the 2005 Spanish-Argentinian elder-romance of the same title.

Co-written by the director and Anna Pavignano, one of five scribes credited with the screenplay of Radford's truly enchanting Il Postino/The Postman (1994), Elsa & Fred jumps over too many clichéd hoops trying to add funny to what could have been a simple tale of new-found love as the sun ebbs on life.

MacLaine and Plummer, who toyed with elder romance in the late Richard Attenborough's Closing the Ring in 2007, do all they can as the title characters.  Fred Barcroft, alternately cared for and badgered by his overbearing daughter (Marcia Gay Harden) a few months after his wife dies, lands next door to ditzy Elsa Hayes in a New Orleans apartment house.

It's not that a relationship is inevitable here that bothers me the most about this romantic-comedy misfire, it's that Radford (Flawless, The Merchant of Venice) falls into the trap of attempting -- and failing -- to transfer the zaniness of the Spanish original to, how shall we say, more sedate American comic sensibilities.

Every time MacLaine hops behind the wheel of the giant orange boat of a car she drives around New Orleans and cranks up the hip-hop music (Yes, I said hip-hop), all I can think about is Ruth Gordon cruising New York streets in various stolen cars trying to save dying trees in Harold and Maude, the dark comic classic treasure of 1971.

The two elders fall truly, madly, deeply in love despite the confused adult children, including Scott Bakula as Elsa's concerned son.  But there are two serious road blocks for those of us in the audience.  Radford and his co-writer keep throwing in characters from nowhere who show up for a scene or two and wander away.  George Segal as Fred's old friend John is one.  James Brolin as Max, Elsa's ex-husband (or is he?), is another.

Somewhere, lurking just below the outlandish nonsense, is a sweet tale about a lonely guy up for one last grasp at true love and a lovable, white-lie spewing woman with health issues who has waited for about six decades for her prince charming to come along and fulfill her dream of channeling Anita Ekberg in Federico Fellini's classic La Dolce Vita (1960).

It's not that filmmakers can't find a way to make elder romance -- even elder romance with comedy -- work in a way that younger, say middle-aged audiences can relate.   British director John Madden managed that beautifully with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in 2012.

Oscar winners MacLaine (Terms of Endearment) and Plummer (Beginners) can only force their way through situations more overly silly than fun in this one.

While it's commendable that top-flight elder actors like Plummer and MacLaine still get to bask in the cinematic spotlight at times, that alone is not enough.  Actors of this standing need decent lines to say in screenplays that don't insult the actors or their audiences.

MPAA rating:  PG-13 (for brief strong language)

105 minutes

Jalapeño rating:    (out of 4)

 

10/13/2014

How come 'The Judge'?

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The judge's son (Robert Downey Jr.) draws up a contract to defend his estranged father (Robert Duvall). (Warner Bros.)

Judge, if I may approach the bench, who directed this cliché-filled misuse of two of our finest living dramatic actors?

Let me amend that, Your Honor.  Much of the blame must go to the screenwriters.  Oops, check that.  It seems that you, David Dobkin, co-authored the original story as well.  Well, guilty as charged, then.

The Judge, which hangs around for well over two drawn-out hours, is a hard-hitting father and son courtroom melodrama that plays out in small-town Indiana.  If it wasn't for Academy Award winner Robert Duvall and two-time Oscar nominee Robert Downey Jr., this carnival of a courtroom drama would be thrown out of cinematic court the first time highly unlikely circumstances keep the plot chugging along to its inevitable, contrived conclusion.

That's the rub for critics and movie fans, though. The Judge pairs Duvall and Downey as an estranged small town judge on the brink of severe human frailty and the son who only interrupts his pending bitter divorce and his successful Chicago law practice of getting rich crooks off the hook because there's been a death in the family.

Once back in his old tiny Indiana burg, Downey's Hank Palmer clashes violently with the old man, Duvall's Judge Joseph Palmer, bumps into his old high school girlfriend "Sam" (Vera Farmiga) and steps in to defend his reluctant father when he's linked to a hit-and-run incident.

To be honest, Duvall and Downey together were all I needed to pay retail and stand in line.  Once there, though, I felt a little sorry for both tremendous actors who had to wade through one plot cliché after another to get to the money shots:  Duvall at 83 and Downey, who almost threw his acting gift down the drain through drug abuse, in fine form and duking it out verbally with the precise timing and nuance few other actors can bring.

Director Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) co-wrote the original story that became the flawed, almost laughable at times screenplay by Nick Schenk (Gran Torino) and Bill Dubuque (a first-timer).  Dobkin insults his audience and his actors repeatedly by asking everyone to suspend their disbelief to impossible limits.

What must Downey have thought when he read in the script that when he falls off his bicycle on the highway that the first driver by would be his old high school squeeze "Sam"?  Actually, it's testament to his will to stay in character that Downey (and Farmiga, who was so terrific opposite George Clooney in Up in the Air) got through the scene without breaking character and laughing hysterically.

This kind of silliness happens at all-too-regular intervals for, I suppose, comic relief in a movie crying out to play it straight and edgy as a taut drama about a father and son fighting through deep wounds to reconnect.

I can't even imagine Gregory Peck having to succumb to cliched bits of comic relief to portray deeply conflicted small town lawyer Atticus Finch. 

Of course The Judge is by no means a drama even remotely resembling the greatness of To Kill a Mockingbird or other memorable courtroom classics.

Occasionally, great acting trumps sloppy film-making, though.  This is one of those cases.

If you're a fan of Duvall (Tender Mercies, The Godfather) and/or Downey (Chaplin, Zodiac), The Judge is worth it just to see two great actors clash like verbal titans able to elevate even trite dialogue to the level of an art form.

MPAA rating:  R (for language including some sexual references)

141 minutes

Jalapeño rating:  2½ (out of 4)

07/16/2014

All the President Men

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(Courtesy: Warner Home Video)

Care to guess which major movie star has played the president of the United States in a movie not once, but twice?

Well, that would be Anthony Hopkins:  Richard Nixon in "Nixon" and John Quincy Adams in "Amistad."
 
For just over an hour, In this presentation enhanced with PowerPoint images and film clips, we'll take a close look at gifted actors portraying actual U.S. presidents and a couple of fictional ones as well.
 
The fictional ones include Harrison Ford in "Air Force One" and Kevin Kline in "Dave," one of my favorites of the genre.

For availability and speaking fees, call 214-364-7364 or email lrratliff@verizon.net.

Rockets' Red Glare: Space Race Classics

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(Courtesy: moma.org)

Remember the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.?  Remember Sputnik, the U.S. Mercury astronauts and "The Right Stuff?"

In "Rockets Red Glare:  Space Race Classics," a  presentation enhanced with PowerPoint images and film clips and lasting a little over an hour, we'll focus on movies that reflected a generation or two of movies dreaming big and looking skyward.
 

Expect us to explore films like "October Sky," "Apollo 13" and an oddball (but wonderful) entry titled "The Astronaut Farmer" among others.

 
For availability and speaking fees, call 214-364-7364 or email lrratliff@verizon.net.

Big Screen Dysfunctional Families

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Melvyn Douglas, left, and Paul Newman go at it in "Hud." (Paramount Pictures)

Dysfunctional families are nothing new on a movie screen on on the block many of us live on.

There have been some memorable classics on the subject matter throughout the 100 years or so movie-lovers have been transfixed by what lights up the screen in front of them. 
 
In this presentation enhanced with PowerPoint images and film clips lasting a little over an hour, we'll investigate why the father and son played to perfection by Melvyn Douglas and Paul Newman grew to hate each other's guts in "Hud."
 
And there's more.  We'll laugh about cinematic family dysfunction in the "Meet the Parents" franchise and find some heartfelt emotional moments amid the mayhem in "Little Miss Sunshine."
 
For availability and speaking fees, call 214-364-7364 or email lrratliff@verizon.net.
 
 
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