REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

Posts Tagged ‘new york city’

THE ODD COUPLE (1968)

In Classic, Comedy, Motion Pictures, O on July 21, 2010 at 11:34 pm

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STUDIO – Paramount

CASTJack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, John Fiedler, Herb Edelman, Monica Evans, Carole Shelley

DIRECTOR – Gene Saks

MPAA Rating: G

I have a question: When you hear the term “great movie pairs”, who comes to mind? There are several possibilities. Astaire and Rogers. Martin and Lewis. Abbott and Costello. Laurel and Hardy. Hepburn and Tracy. Bogart and Bacall. The list goes on, but no list would be complete without Lemmon and Matthau. They made ten movies together, plus one more (Chaplin) in which they appeared in archive footage, but the pinnacle (and arguably the most famous) of this cinematic pairing took place in 1968, with The Odd Couple.

Walter Matthau stars as Oscar Madison,  a New York sports writer who can be best described in his own words: “divorced, broke, and sloppy”. His wife and kids moved to California months before, and his apartment is strewn with garbage, smells, and a very apparent lack of air conditioning. More, his proclivities to gambling and eating out have led to his alimony being late. Then, during his weekly poker game, he gets shocking news: His friend and colleague, news writer Felix Ungar (Jack Lemmon), and his wife have broken up. Felix is an obsessive-compulsive, anal-retentive, hypochondriac neat freak who has suddenly turned suicidal because his wife had kicked him out. When he finally shows up at Oscar’s apartment for the poker game, Oscar invites Felix to move in with him.

Oscar (Walter Matthau) comforts Felix (Jack Lemmon) after his wife kicked him out

Needless to say, you can already see the conflict in this one. These two men are polar opposites of each other, and the resulting living conditions within Oscar’s apartment are both vastly improved and desperately maddening at the same time! This comedy, crafted from the wily mind of one Neil Simon, has been a personal favorite of mine ever since I discovered it in the mid-1970s. This (along with MASH) was one of those cases of me liking a TV show, then discovering “They made a movie about it, too?” I remember watching it on TV for the first time, thinking “Wait a minute. This isn’t Jack Klugman and Tony Randall!” Then I learned the movie was older than the TV show, and that it was a play before that. Soon, it didn’t matter that the actors were different, because the two guys who were in the movie were really funny together! To this day, The Odd Couple remains on my so-called “short list” of favorite movies.

When I received my rented copy in the mail, I was shocked to learn this movie was (and still is) Rated G. I’m guessing that, because the then newly-formed MPAA was still trying to find itself, and that since there was no violence, excessive language, or nudity, it was deemed suitable for all audiences. Looking at The Odd Couple today, with its adult-related themes of gambling, divorce, and dating, I would be more inclined to modify this to a PG. And, with tobacco use becoming the latest subject of attack against the MPAA (something I personally don’t agree with), some may even go so far as PG-13. I do agree that smoking shouldn’t be in a G-rated film, and at least half the characters smoke in this movie. Mind you, I am not speaking out against tobacco use; if you smoke, that’s you’re prerogative. Just remember, attitudes have changed drastically since 1968, and I am sure they will change again over the next 42 years. But, I’m digressing, so let’s move on…

It was widely reported that Walter Matthau (who had played Oscar on Broadway) wanted to be Felix in the movie, because he wanted an acting challenge. Neil Simon’s reaction: Act somewhere else, be Oscar here. Personally, and this is nothing against his talent, but I cannot for the life of me imagine anyone else but Walter Matthau as Oscar. And the pairing with Jack Lemmon was nothing short of genius. Yes, they’d worked together previously in The Fortune Cookie, but this was the movie that sealed the deal in establishing Lemmon and Matthau as a team, which would also include The Front Page, the Grumpy Old Men movies, and even a sequel to this film, among others

The centerpiece of this movie is the scene following the would-be double-date between Oscar and Felix and their in-building neighbors, the Pigeon sisters (Monica Evans and Carole Shelley). Due to circumstances which will not be spoiled here, Felix bails out on the double-date, which upsets Oscar to the point that, the next day, they are not on speaking terms. What transpires is nearly two minutes of comic genius, without a single word spoken. Gutsy, yes, but even now, after seeing it for probably the 138th time (Sorry, in-joke), it still makes me laugh!

On the downside, the material is somewhat dated. Among the now-outmoded items mentioned in this movie include telegrams, milk bottles, and the AutoMat. There is even one scene which takes place at Shea Stadium, which was torn down after the New York Mets moved to Citi Field following the 2008 season. A dream of mine is to rewrite this movie to update it, but keep the story basically intact. Of course, to do that, I would need to a) write a screenplay of my own, b) get Neil Simon’s blessing, and c) get a studio to okay it. Until that day comes (or when the planets all align on the same side of the sun), I will be perfectly happy with the movie as it is.

The Odd Couple is far and away my favorite of Neil Simon’s work. Sharply written, perfectly cast, and funny from start to finish, this comedy classic takes a look at divorce in a such a way that few other movies have even glimpsed. This is a must-add to your Queue!

NOTE: There is a Special Features disk with this movie which is currently unavailable from Netflix. As soon as it does become available, I will rent it and write a follow-up here as soon as I can.

4 (out of 5)


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YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938)

In Best Picture Winners, Classic, Comedy, Family, Motion Pictures, Romance, Y on July 11, 2010 at 10:53 pm

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STUDIO – Columbia

CASTJean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Edward Arnold, Ann Miller, Spring Byington, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Samuel S. Hinds

DIRECTORFrank Capra

NOT RATED
(MPAA Equivalent: G)

Many moons ago, I was an eighth-grader going to what would later be my high school to attend a production of “You Can’t Take It With You“, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. To be honest, I don’t remember much, except that it was required for my Drama class, and that I did laugh during the show. Then, more than a few moons later, I learned that not only did Frank Capra direct a movie based on the play, but that it also was the Best Picture of 1938. I have now seen it a few times, and I am happy to report that You Can’t Take It With You still makes me laugh!

Lionel Barrymore stars as Martin Vanderhof, patriarch of a household of eccentric people. Please pay attention, for there will be a pop quiz later in the article. Vanderhof’s daughter, Penny Sycamore (Spring Byington), took up writing plays because a typewriter was accidentally delivered to their home. Her husband, Paul (Samuel S. Hinds), makes fireworks in the basement with Mr. DePinna (Halliwell Hobbes), a long-time guest in the house. Paul and Penny have two daughters, Essie Carmichael (Ann Miller), who constantly dances and makes candy which her husband Ed (Dub Taylor) sells on the street, and Alice Sycamore, a stenographer for the vice-president of a major bank. As you can see, Alice seems to be the least eccentric of the bunch! Ah, but there’s more!

A.P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) and Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) in jail

In the opposite corner is Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), banker and Wall Street mogul. His drive and ambition drove him to his position, thanks in part to his high-society wife (Mary Forbes). His latest project the development of 12 blocks currently occupied by homes, apartments, and small businesses into a munitions factory intended to be the dominant contractor of the U.S. War Department. And one of those homes is owned by one Martin Vanderhof, and he refuses to sell. By the way, A.P. Kirby had just promoted his son Tony (James Stewart) to vice-president of the corporation. But, despite his parents’ protests, Tony seems to be more interested in his stenographer than his job. Yes, you read that right: Alice works for (and is in love with) Tony! What a tangled web, indeed!

Considering it took two paragraphs to set up the story, I will not even begin to tell you how it unfolds (or unravels, depending upon your point of view), but I will say that You Can’t Take It With You is a timeless comedy sure to make you stop and ponder your life, and make you smile doing it. Lionel Barrymore is so easygoing as Vanderhof, that, before long, you forget he has crutches (by the time filming started, Lionel Barrymore had severe arthritis and a recent hip injury, so they wrote in an ankle injury for Vanderhof). Edward Arnold’s take on Kirby was somewhat cliché in the Capra style, but his performance proved to be a strong counterpoint to Barrymore’s.

The central core of the story is the star-crossed romance between Alice and Tony. This subplot plays out like a sort of comedic “Romeo and Juliet”: He is the son of a powerful banker, and she comes from a middle-class family who just happens to live in the house the banker is trying to buy. The twist occurs when Alice suggests to Tony that he bring his parents over to meet her family, and he does… one day early! Needless to say, the already awkward situation suddenly becomes downright messy!

Finally, You Can’t Take It With You is the story of A.P. Kirby’s journey to gaining that property, and what he did with it once he had it. Along the way, he learns an important lesson: True happiness isn’t measured in fortune, but in kindness and generosity. People should be entitled to do what they want to do, and not what others expect of them. For example, Tony has no ambitions of working in the family business, but he feels obligated because Kirbys have been bankers for “9000 years”. What he wants to do is figure out how to make the “green in the grass” into an energy source.  You have to admit that this idea was way ahead of its time; biochemical engineering was unheard of in the late-1930s!

On a personal level, this brings back my previous idea to reenter my intended career field, which I first mentioned in my write-up of Up in the Air. For too long, I have been trying to do what others want or expect me to do, and, for whatever reason, I kept running into roadblocks, setbacks, and an overall plain ol’ lack of direction. Again, I am not quite prepared to relay any details, but I have hatched an idea which I’m sure will give me a chance to freshen my skills and put my foot in the door. But enough about me; I promise to tell all when the time comes.

You Can’t Take It With You is nostalgic, irreverent, touching, poignant, and most important, fun. It has a great story, a wonderful cast, and running gags aplenty. The quality of the film itself is not the best (there are occasional black frames, for example), but don’t let that distract you; this is the true definition of a “feel-good” movie, guaranteed to make you cry tears of joy!

THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936)

In Best Picture Winners, Biography, Classic, Drama, Epic, G, Motion Pictures on June 29, 2010 at 6:28 pm

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STUDIO – MGM

CAST – William Powell, Myrna Loy, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan, Virginia Bruce, Ernest Cossart, Fanny Brice, Ray Bolger, Nat Pendleton, Buddy Doyle, A.A. Trimble

DIRECTOR – Robert Z. Leonard

NOT RATED
(MPAA Equivalent: PG)

From the beginning of the 20th Century until the beginning of the Great Depression, the entertainment world was focused not just on New York City, but on one man who can arguably be attributed to giving Broadway its charm, luster, and appeal, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. He was a charming man, but at the same time he was very reckless. If he had two nickels to rub together, he’d spend it. His shows (most of them a series of “Ziegfeld Follies“) were renowned the world over, but Ziegfeld himself never kept any money. He spent it on lavish production pieces, the cast and crew, his women, and of course, the many wolves knocking at his door. He died a poor man in 1932, forcing his widow, Billie Burke, to work in motion pictures to pay off his debts. But his influence in show business has since reached out even today, both on Broadway and in Hollywood. Four years after his death, The Great Ziegfeld opened nationwide, and the next year, it became the first biographical motion picture to take home the Oscar for Best Picture.

The story opens during the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, where a young Ziegfeld (William Powell) and his friend and rival Jack Billings (Frank Morgan) hold court at their respective booths, barking for their shows. At first Billings, with his exotic dancer known as Little Egypt, is drawing the large crowds, while Ziegfeld’s show, featuring muscleman The Great Sandow, has been threatened with eviction from the midway. Then, as if by miracle, a female admirer approached Sandow and asked to feel his muscles; from that moment on, he became a sensation, and Ziegfeld was on his was way to bigger and better things. The movie then traces what would be the final 30 or so years of Ziegfeld’s life, including his relationship with Anna Held (Best Actress Luise Rainer), the creation of the Follies, his marriage to Billie Burke (Myrna Loy), and his fall after the Crash of 1929.

Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell) recruits Anna Held (Luise Rainer) to perform on Broadway

Let me get this out of the way now: Though full of musical numbers, The Great Ziegfeld is not a musical. It a dramatic motion picture of a man who gave the world groundbreaking entertainment on such a lavish scale, that some examples of his work (and a few tributes as well) were added to the story. For example, the centerpiece of this movie is Irving Berlin’s “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody”, an elaborate seven-minute long trek up a spinning spiral staircase featuring additional music by Strauss, Liszt, Dvorák, and Gershwin (among others). It plays out as a staged production, and is not a song Florenz Ziegfeld sings to upstart actress Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce), who, by the way, was the titular “Pretty Girl” at the top of those stairs.

What I can tell you about this movie is that it’s a costume designer’s dream. Every Ziegfeld number is a veritable orgy of sequins, silk, and silver lamé, each one more extravagant than the last. And another of the musical numbers, entitled “You Never Looked So Beautiful”, features a parade of costumed beauties in the Ziegfeld style, with ornate trains and flamboyant headdresses (some weighing as much as 50 pounds!). Each of the sets for these numbers was equally elaborate, including one which redefined the term “thrust stage” by having five individual sections of the stage come out toward the audience, choreographed and on cue, even while dancers were performing on them. By far, this and the “Pretty Girl” number are among the most ambitious musical set pieces ever performed in motion picture history, and by themselves, just might be worth the price.

But the drawback to these set pieces is they sometime take away from the movie’s intent. William Powell’s performance of Flo Ziegfeld was nearly spot-on; he even bore a slight resemblance to the great showman. Billie Burke made sure that the screenplay didn’t tarnish her late husband’s image, but that didn’t stop Virginia Bruce from chewing the scenery (wine bottle in hand) as a composite of Ziegfeld’s mistresses. And though Ms. Burke did not appear in the movie, she was competently played by Powell’s favorite screen partner, Myrna Loy (They made 14 movies together). This leaves Luise Rainer’s performance of Anna Held. At the time, Ms. Rainer had never heard of the legendary French-Polish actress, so she drew her performance from the script, resulting in an overdramatic characterization that falls nothing short of potential diagnosis of histrionic personality disorder, including the prototypical and now-famous “good luck through the tears” phone call in her last scene.

The Great Ziegfeld also features scenes of famous performers of the early 20th Century. Aside from Eugen Sandow (for whom the Mr. Olympia trophy is named), Anna Held and Billie Burke, singer/dancer Eddie Cantor (Buddy Doyle) and legendary humorist Will Rogers (A.A. Trimble) are placed on exhibit in brief scenes. And, as an added treat, both Fanny Brice and Ray Bolger play themselves as a tribute to Ziegfeld, and both shine in their respective performances.

All in all, The Great Ziegfeld is a prime example of ROI (return on investment) in motion pictures. Opening to critical and popular acclaim, this movie, budgeted at $2 million, made about $40 million in its initial release. Can you think of a movie made by a major studio in the last 30 years that recouped 20 times its budget (or more) on just its first-run domestic theatrical release? With the exceptions of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982), which grossed 33.2 times its $10.5 million dollar budget, and Airplane! (1980), which brought in 23.8 times its $3.5 million budget, you’d be hard pressed to find one.

The Great Ziegfeld is a spectacle which has some substance, though you may need to find it upon occasion. A bit on the long side (just over three hours, including the Overture and Exit Music), it is still a worthy member of the best that Oscar has to offer.

4 (out of 5)

YOU’VE GOT MAIL (1998)

In Comedy, Motion Pictures, Romance, Uncategorized, Y on May 16, 2010 at 7:17 pm

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STUDIO — Warner Bros.

CAST — Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Jean Stapleton, Dave Chappelle, Parker Posey, Greg Kinnear, Steve Zahn, Dabney Coleman

DIRECTOR — Nora Ephron

MPAA Rating: PG

Dear Friend–

So far, it has been an intriguing month of viewing and reviewing movies, including three of them with the same premise. I’m not sure how to put this, but having that sense of déjà vu while watching a movie is so unsettling, yet so entertaining at the same time. So, how should I approach this review? I’m sure I’ll figure something out…

Welcome to the conclusion of this three-part review, in which I have taken a journey spanning nearly 60 years, to look at three different movies based on the same story. I began with Jimmy Stewart’s The Shop Around the Corner, followed by the Judy Garland musical In the Good Old Summertime. Now, we have reached the end of our journey, with You’ve Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, only this time they aren’t co-workers; they are business rivals.

Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) tells Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) what he thinks of her "inconsequential" book store

Tom Hanks plays Joe Fox, heir apparent to the monolithic Fox & Sons Books store chain. Meg Ryan is Kathleen Kelly, owner/proprietor of a children’s book store called The Shop Around the Corner (a nod to the original movie). Kathleen’s book store was started up by her mother, and it was a fixture in Manhattan for 42 years. When Fox Books moves in to open a store (literally) just around the corner, she is initially confident that her little store will continue (though we can all tell she is in denial). One day, a gentleman with two small children enter her store (the kids wanted to see the Storybook Lady) and he strikes up a conversation with Kathleen, introducing himself simply as “Joe”. Later, at a party, they bump into each either again, only this time she finds out second-hand that “Joe” is really Joe Fox of Fox Books. Let the battle begin!

Now, the funny thing is that both Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly have significants other (Parker Posey and Greg Kinnear, respectively) whose behaviors and habits are infuriating: Joe tells his friend Kevin (Dave Chapelle) that Patricia (Posey) “makes coffee nervous”, while Kathleen thinks Frank’s (Kinnear) fascination with typewriters borders on obsession. But, they both also have been secretly exchanging e-mails with someone they met online, and they both find themselves becoming more and more fascinated with their respective anonymous friend. But there is a catch: Joe and Kathleen’s online friends are each other.

You’ve Got Mail is the second movie starring Hanks and Ryan that was directed by Nora Ephron (and their third, overall). On the up side, Hanks and Ryan work well together. Even at the peak of their conflict, you can still see the two characters ending up together. Meanwhile, the themes of large corporations squeezing out local businesses and of meeting someone online were very real concepts in the late 1990s. I used to live in a town which had numerous busy shops downtown, selling everything from CDs and TVs, to rugs and vacuums. When a “big-box” store (I won’t say which) decided to move into a new (and much larger) location in town, many of the stores downtown (and even in the local mall) were forced to close their doors because they couldn’t compete with the low prices the “big-box” store had. Meanwhile the Internet was still somewhat a novelty during this time, and chat rooms, bulletin boards, and discussion forums were popping up everywhere. Suddenly, a man in Columbus, Georgia, could strike up a conversation with a woman in Hilo, Hawaii, without the expense of travel or long-distance phone calls. At the time You’ve Got Mail was released, these were contemporary concepts.

But times change. Today, with the economic slide of the past few years, small business has been making a comeback, and large companies have been pink-slipping their collective workforce. Meanwhile, the Internet has changed, too. America Online (from whom the title of this movie was inspired) is no longer an Internet service provider; it is now an Internet portal, free to everyone. And there are other avenues available today. With text messaging, instant messaging, Internet access on phones and other portable devices, and dating sites like eHarmony and Match.com, it is now unlikely you will “meet” someone online without ever knowing what they look like until you meet them face-to-face.

You’ve Got Mail feels like The Shop Around the Corner meets Sleepless in Seattle. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it does share several elements with the Sleepless formula. It stars Hanks and Ryan, it’s directed (and co-written) by Ephron, and it’s about people fascinated with someone they’ve never met. And in both movies, Meg Ryan’s character has a boyfriend with whom she breaks up amicably (Here, Kinnear assumes the reins of Bill Pullman’s role from Sleepless).

Now, it’s time to give you a really great piece of trivia: All three of the movies in this series of reviews has a connection to The Wizard of Oz. The store owner in The Shop Around the Corner was played by Frank Morgan (The Wonderful Wizard himself), In the Good Old Summertime starred Judy Garland (duh!), and the final scene of You’ve Got Mail featured the song “Over the Rainbow”. Ah, the things you pick up while working on this ongoing project…

I saw this movie while on a date in early 1999, during its initial release. While it played a small part in what would develop into one of the better relationships I have forged in my life, I look back on it today with a fresh pair of eyes, and some of the luster seems to have worn off to me. Don’t misunderstand me. I still feel it is an entertaining movie, but just over a decade later, it already feels a bit dated. The charm of Hanks and Ryan does manage to rise above that, but I would prefer either Sleepless in Seattle or the original (The Shop Around the Corner) instead.

THE GOODBYE GIRL (1977)

In Comedy, G, Motion Pictures, Romance on May 9, 2010 at 1:04 am

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STUDIO — Warner Bros.

CAST — Richard Dreyfuss, Marsha Mason, Quinn Cummings, Paul Benedict

DIRECTOR — Herbert Ross

MPAA Rating: PG

In the history of motion pictures, there are a few select years in which the Academy got them all right, and it’s almost a sure thing that you have seen at least one Best Picture nominee from that year. The usually-mentioned first “great year” was 1939, when Gone with the Wind took Best Picture. There were nine other nominees that year, including Ninotchka, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Wuthering Heights, and a little-known fantasy called The Wizard of Oz (perhaps you’ve heard of it). 1977 is said to be another such year, with Woody Allen’s Annie Hall taking the honors, while another small film called Star Wars waited in the wings. Here is an interesting fact: Director Herbert Ross helmed two of the five Best Picture nominees in 1977, The Turning Point and The Goodbye Girl. And, like Star Wars, they also watched while Woody Allen won. I have seen both of these movies, and both are excellent. One is a drama, the other a comedy, and both are about dancers. Today, I focus on the lighter of these two movies.

Paula McFadden (Best Actress nominee Marsha Mason) is an ex-dancer in New York City. For the last couple of years, she and her daughter Lucy (Best Supporting Actress nominee Quinn Cummings, in her official motion picture debut), have been living in an apartment with a stage actor named Tony. We first meet Paula and Lucy on their way home from a shopping spree, eagerly anticipating their upcoming move to L.A. (Tony got a TV gig). But when they get home, Paula finds a “Dear Jane” letter from him, saying he took a six-month movie shoot in Italy instead. But it gets better! Later that day, she finds out Tony had sublet the apartment to somebody else!

Paula (Marsha Mason) and Elliot (Richard Dreyfuss) discuss the living arrangements

Enter Elliot Garfield (Best Actor Richard Dreyfuss), an actor from Chicago who is about to start rehearsals for his first New York production. He enters the apartment building from the pouring rain, sticks his key into the lock, turns it… and discovers the door is chained from the inside! Puzzled as to why he can’t enter, he hits the buzzer to figure out what’s going on. To say this relationship starts on a rocky note is an understatement, but seeing that he has the legal right (and the money) and she has a child to take care of, they agree to share the apartment.

This is why I like Neil Simon. I have regarded him as one of the greatest American playwrights. He is to contemporary comedy what Tennessee Williams was to Southern melodrama. There is really no other way to put it. Now, most movies with Simon’s name on them start out as plays, like The Odd Couple or Barefoot in the Park. But The Goodbye Girl was written directly for the screen, and with Simon’s (then) wife, Marsha Mason, in mind. But it still looks and feels like a Neil Simon play. One of his trademarks is how he writes conflict into his scripts: Two characters (usually the leads) start yammering about two completely different things, then the conversation comes closer and closer to the subject at hand until they are both talking about the same thing, only to drift off into opposite directions again (I picked that little gem of information up from my high school drama teacher, Susan Stauter. See? It is possible to recall things you learned in high school! Wherever you are, Ms. Stauter, I hope you are well).

Anyway, The Goodbye Girl stands out as one of the great romantic comedies of the 1970s, and arguably of all time. Both Dreyfuss and Mason are a delight to watch, especially when they first meet! On that first night, you will be thinking “Wait a minute! These people hate each other!” And they do. Just watch it for yourself, and see what happens. Both Dreyfuss and Mason give energetic performances. And, since a performance is sometimes based on the quality of the script, it stands to reason that the screenplay is also top-notch.

As for Quinn Cummings, who makes her official debut in this movie (she also had an uncredited role in Annie Hall that year), her portrayal of Lucy was spot-on. Lucy is our eyes and ears in this movie. Let me explain. Good drama requires two basic types of people, participants and observers. Paula and Elliot are obviously participating in a developing relationship. Lucy is on the outside. She is watching these events unfold as an independent third party, making her the observer. And before you say “But she is her mother’s child”, remember that Lucy is not the one directly dealing with Elliot, Paula is. Therefore, as an observer, she get to be our eyes and ears, as we watch Paula and Elliot’s relationship develop. As for the character herself, Lucy is supposed to be at just that right age when she is learning and discovering how things really work in this world. As a result, Lucy is supposed to possess a special curiosity and innocent wisdom, as evidenced during the opening credits, when Paula tells Lucy she was “born [at age] 26”. As played by young Miss Cummings, Lucy comes off as a child with that kind of precociousness.

I will be the first to admit that The Goodbye Girl isn’t my personal favorite of Neil Simon’s work (That honor goes to The Odd Couple), but it is among the best that Neil Simon has to offer. A note to all you guys out there: This is a great movie to pop into the DVD player with your other half on a rainy night, just you, her, the movie, and a giant bowl of popcorn. Trust me. If she hasn’t seen this one, she’ll be glad you introduced her to it. It was great to watch 30 years ago, and I can still watch it today. And even now, it will still make me smile.

4 out of 5

PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL “PUSH” BY SAPPHIRE (2009)

In Drama, Independent, Motion Pictures, P on April 18, 2010 at 1:40 am

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STUDIO — Lions Gate 

CAST — Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, Paula Patton 

DIRECTOR — Lee Daniels 

MPAA Rating: R 

By now, I’m sure many of you have heard of the latest “next big thing” known as Gabourey Sidibe. I am here to tell you that the claim is justified. 

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire is the story of Claireece “Precious” Jones (Sidibe, in her motion picture debut), an overweight 16-year-old girl, pregnant with her second child by her father, and still in junior high school. As if life wasn’t already hard enough, she lives in a fifth-floor walk-up in Harlem with her mother, Mary (Academy Award winner Mo’Nique), an abusive monster of a woman whose sole purpose in life is to make nicey-nice with the social workers by using Precious’ mentally-disabled daughter as a means to keep the welfare checks coming in. 

When her school finds out about her second pregnancy, they have no choice but to expel her. But the principal reaches out by telling her of an alternative education program, where she can work toward a GED. There, she meets Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), who can see the inner beauty and intelligence within Precious and, bit by bit, helps her to discover it for herself.

Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) on her first trip to alternative education school

Within the first 15 minutes of this movie, I was taken in and I never let go. I have seen interviews with Gabby Sidibe; she is a charming, funny young lady with a bubbly personality. Her characterization of Precious Jones was so moving, it is very easy to see how she was very likely a strong runner-up in the Oscar race for Best Actress of 2009 (which went to one of my personal favorites, Sandra Bullock). Sidibe’s performance is so captivating, it is truly hard to believe that we are actually watching (to borrow a college football term) a redshirt freshman in the role. I can only see bigger and better things for her down the road. And one might dismiss the movie altogether because the supporting cast features three singers (Paula Patton, Lenny Kravitz, and Mariah Carey) and a comedienne (Mo’Nique), but think again. Mo’Nique may have taken home the Oscar, but it was Mariah Carey(!) who really surprised me as social worker Ms. Weiss. Here she is, with no makeup and wearing frumpy clothes, and she looked and acted so much like a real social worker, I almost forgot this was one of the most popular (and most glamorous) singers of the last 20 years! And director Lee Daniels’ cutaways into the fantasy worlds which Precious creates whenever she is abused, whether by her father, her mother, or even some punks on the street, gives us, the viewers, a look into how an abuse victim mentally escapes from the pain, even during the act.

This movie is about the vicious cycle that is the depravity of inner city life, and how one woman gave a girl quickly slipping on that downward spiral the gift of literacy and, ultimately, the power to step out on her own and make a new life for herself and her children. But it was more than just having the right people help her; it’s also a story of finding inner strength. And where there is strength, there is courage, and it is in courage that one develops a positive self-esteem.

The DVD is packed with several features, including Gabby Sidibe’s mesmerizing audition video. Did you know that over 400 women auditioned for the part in a nationwide open call? Did you know that filming of Denzel Washington’s American Gangster (2007) blocked Sidibe’s normal route to school, so she decided to go in the opposite way to the audition instead? Did you know that executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry signed on to promote the movie after the movie was completed? That last little fact debunks the theory that, since Oprah put her name on the project, her show had to be mentioned in the movie. Sorry. While it’s true Precious asks another character if she watches Oprah, the all-powerful Ms. Winfrey had nothing to do with it.

Precious is a gripping and moving motion picture with a powerful message that there is strength in each of us to find the ability to reach out, to love, to learn, and to improve ourselves, all in the face of adversity. There aren’t many films that reach into the bowels of despair, yet convey a strong message of hope. This movie succeeds, and with a payoff for the ages.

3-1/2 out of 5

GOODFELLAS (1990)

In Action, Biography, Crime, Drama, G, Motion Pictures on April 9, 2010 at 1:49 pm

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STUDIO — Warner Bros.   

CAST — Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco  

DIRECTOR —  Martin Scorsese  

MPAA Rating: R   

There is so much I can say about this movie, except that it has most likely already been said before. Goodfellas is, of course, on my short list of favorite motion pictures and, as I did with Patton, I will recount my experience by checking out the two-disk Special Edition of this movie.  

When I received Disk One, I literally watched this movie three times. First, I had to watch the movie itself, which is something of which I will never tire. The kinetic energy throughout this masterpiece grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go until long after you’ve seen it (but more on that in a minute). Sure, there are some anachronistic gaffs here and there (A teenaged Henry Hill selling Black Market cigarettes with UPC barcodes on the cartons — in 1959!), but every performance, every characterization, gave me a sense of what life must have been like in the Mafia during its heyday. The whole first half of the movie shows the glamour, the connections, the camaraderie, and the partying, while the second half follows a steady descent into Hell, with drug addiction, greed, murder, and paranoia.  

Goodfellas recounts the story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a half-Italian/half-Irish gangster associated with the infamous Lucchese crime family, and how he met up and partnered with two other mobsters, portrayed here as Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Academy Award winner Joe Pesci). As you may have guessed by my last statement, some of the names were changed for the purposes of making this movie. Does this diminish the quality of this movie? Not in the least. Anyway, all three performances were mesmerizing, especially Pesci’s. His performance as Tommy was cemented in the now-infamous “You’re a funny guy” scene, and it sustained all way through.  

Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) enjoy a night on the town

 Also of note (especially for you fans of  “The Sopranos”) is Lorraine Bracco as Henry’s wife, Karen, and a brief appearance by Michael Imperioli in one of his first film roles, as Spider. Another face to watch for is Samual L. Jackson in one of his quieter roles, as Stacks Edwards. Look for a few famous faces as well, including Jerry Vale, Robbie Vinton (as his father, Bobby), and comedian Henny Youngman, in one of his final film appearances.  

Okay, by now, I’m sure you’re asking “Why the subsequent screenings?” Well, there are two commentary tracks, “Crook and Cop” and “Cast and Crew”. In the “Crook and Cop” commentary, Henry Hill and U.S. District Attorney Ed McDonald (who placed Henry and his family into the Witness Protection Program — and plays himself in the movie) give their insight to the events portrayed in the film from both of their unique perspectives. Hill would fill in some gaps in the story or explain why or how something happened, while McDonald talked about how difficult it really was to pin convictions on some of these wiseguys, problems with surveillance, and how the FBI employed what became known as the “Al Capone strategy” for getting a conviction: If you can’t get them for murder, get them for something else.  

The “Cast and Crew” commentary doesn’t cover the entire length of the movie; whole sections of the movie are skipped during the “silent” parts. But, Scorsese, producer Irwin Winkler, co-writer Nicholas Pileggi, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, and cast members Liotta, Pesci, De Niro, Bracco, and Paul Sorvino, among others, all talk about their own perspectives on the making of this movie. Did you know that Ray Liotta and Henry Hill met up for a drink after the film’s release, and each was star-struck to meet the other face-to-face? Did you know that, as written, Goodfellas has no climax? And remember when I said this movie doesn’t let go? Well, did you know that Paul Sorvino, who had struggled for months to find his character, initially hated the completed film? It took a few hours afterward before he realized how great it really was.  

The second disk has a few documentaries, including a short with Henry Hill, called “The Workaday Gangster”. In it, he tells us, the audience, that the essence of what we see in Goodfellas is “99% accurate” from his perspective. Another features several directors influenced by Scorsese and/or Goodfellas, including Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), and others. As a special treat, there’s even a four-minute snippet called “Paper Is Cheaper Than Film”, which literally illustrates how Martin Scorsese visualized some of the shots by writing notes and thumbnail sketches on the shooting script. 

Many people have argued for years which of Scorsese’s movies is his best. Some say it’s Raging Bull. Others would say Taxi Driver. Another camp might even cry out, “Well, The Departed won Best Picture”. Then there’s the Casino crowd. Exciting, visceral, unflinching, and unrelenting, Goodfellas is not only a classic gangster movie, it is a film for the ages. And to me, this is the epitome of Martin Scorsese’s filmmaking career. 

IN THE LOOP (2009)

In Comedy, I, Motion Pictures, War on March 3, 2010 at 12:05 pm

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STUDIO — BBC Films    

CAST — Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, Gina McGee, James Ganolfini, Mimi Kennedy, Anna Chlumsky, Chris Addison      

DIRECTOR —  Armando Iannucci      

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: R)      

A mid-level British politician named Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) unwittingly states invasion of the Middle East is “unforeseeable” on an interview program, and it’s up to the staff at 10 Downing Street to clean it up in order to preserve Britain’s alliance with the Unites States, no matter the cost. And with that note, we are suddenly thrown In the Loop.      

(Hmm… That intro sounded very Roger Ebert of me. I hope he doesn’t mind.)      

In the Loop is a political farce of the most creative kind. This movie follows the British Prime Minister’s Director of Communications, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) as he manipulates, bargains and swears his way from London to Washington and back, and then to the United Nations, in order to make sure that his boss, the Prime Minister, is on the same page as the President of the United States.      

This movie moves at breakneck speeds. The plot is so heavily interwoven and complex, it actually makes sense. One moment, Foster’s assistant (Chris Addison) unintentionally spills the beans of a secret meeting in Washington to a friend at CNN. Before you know it, half of London is on a witch hunt, looking for the source of leaked documents written by a Washington staffer (Anna Chlumsky).      

Let me take a moment to talk about Anna Chlumsky. I am very happy to see she is still acting. For those who wonder where they may have seen her before, or perhaps where they’d heard the name, she is a former child star, most notably of the two My Girl movies in the early 1990s. Well, Anna is all grown up now, and in this movie, she has the mouth to prove it!      

Gen. Miller (James Gandolfini) and Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) discuss a leaked document at the UN

In fact, the insults fly fast and furious throughout the movie. Every principal cast member (even David Rasche’s clean-mouthed Linton Barwick) throws barbs, insults, and profanities faster than a Jonathan Broxton fastball, one right after the other. And this movie is laced with so many “F-bombs”, it might give Goodfellas a run for its money!      

But the humor in this movie comes from not just the insults. Many situational bits play into the genius of this comedy, as well. There is one particularly funny scene, in which Lt. Gen. George Miller (James Gandolfini) and Diplomacy Undersecretary Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy) discuss possible troop deployment figures in a girl’s bedroom. It is juxtapositions like this that give commentary to the ridiculousness of the political arena on both sides of the Pond, and director Armando Iannucci captures them with a skilled eye that was evidently influenced by the late Robert Altman.      

While watching In the Loop, I began to draw similarities with the Kubrick classic Dr. Strangelove. Afterward, when I delved into the Special Features on the DVD, I heard the announcer in the TV spot mention the “instant comparisons” between the two (as quoted by the New York Times). And to tell the truth, I did find myself thinking this movie somewhat reminded me of the Kubrick classic while I was watching it (and before viewing the Special Features). Whether this movie will go down as one of the greatest political farces of all time remains to be seen, but In the Loop has a superb cast, deft direction, a well-played (and Oscar-nominated) script, and some very skillful editing. One word of caution: As a British film, the comedy can be quite dry. This film is not for the uninitiated, but it is obscenely fun to watch.

3-1/2 out of 5

JULIE & JULIA (2009)

In Biography, Comedy, Drama, J, Motion Pictures on March 1, 2010 at 11:47 am

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STUDIO — Columbia

CAST — Amy Adams, Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina

DIRECTOR —  Nora Ephron

MPAA Rating: PG-13

When this movie came out in 2009, I was skeptical about it. I had heard about the “Julie/Julia” project, but to make a motion picture about two separate lives about two different women who lived in two different time periods seemed far-fetched to me. And I must be up-front about this: Julie & Julia is not the kind of movie which (on the surface, at least) I would just pop in the DVD player and watch. But, since Meryl Streep received her 40th Academy Award nomination, I gave it a shot.

(Okay, I kid about Meryl Streep. But, as of this writing, she has received 15 Oscar nods – with two wins – since 1979. Nothing against Ms. Streep; she is an exceptionally talented actress. But it’s almost as if to say she’s the Academy’s “go-to” girl if they need a fifth name to fill out the Best Actress category, especially if she alters her voice in any way. But I digress…)

Julie Powell (Amy Adams) recalls her mother making Julia Child's boeuf bourguignon

About 25 minutes into this movie, I actually exclaimed out loud “I get it!” I actually began to see this as one portrait of two women who led parallel lives. And the parallels are almost uncanny! In case you are not aware, the late Julia Child was one of the most popular TV personalities of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1961, her book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was published. And her cooking shows, beginning with “The French Chef”, ran off-and-on from 1963 to 2000, and she is one of the reasons The Food Network exists today.

So, what are the parallels? For starters, Julia Child (Meryl Streep) was a former OSS file clerk in post-war Paris who became the first female graduate of Le Cordon Bleu. Julie Powell (Amy Adams), an occupant of a cubicle in a government office in post-9/11 New York City, decided to take on the ambitious project of re-creating all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s book. In one year. And write a blog about it. Both women overcame obstacles on their way to achieve their goals. For Julia, it was writing and re-writing her book for years, only to be rejected by numerous publishers untill one finally said “yes”; for Julie, it was the ridiculous idea of actually starting this blog of hers (at her husband’s suggestion), wondering if anyone would ever read it anyway.

Now, starting a blog is something I can personally relate to. I have just started this blog myself, and I can relate to Julie’s frustrations in the early days of her blog, whose only reader at the time seemed to be her mother. As of this writing, only my brother and a couple of friends have read these reviews. With that cloud of uncertainty hanging over me, I sometimes wonder if my efforts will ever bear fruit. Watching this movie reminded me that all I have to do is keep pressing forward; some day, this little blog of mine will have a life of its own. But, I digress again…

This movie was fun to watch. Seeing Meryl Streep as Julia Child, I began to ask myself in some scenes, “Where’s Meryl?” That is usually a good indicator of a good performance. And the food! Oh, my God! I could almost smell some of those dishes! Here I am, writing a review about a movie featuring gourmet cooking, and I’m eating a toasted bagel. It’s almost as if I’m saying that I’m practically insulting the film!

Writer/director Nora Ephron is a food lover, or “foodie”. That’s a little snippet of information I picked up while watching the “making of” featurette on the DVD. But her love of food comes through in spades here. There’s an old adage in the culinary arts that “presentation is everything”. If it doesn’t look appealing, you may not want to try it. Here, the presentation was delicious, tender, and rich, with butter! Lots of butter (a Julia Child trademark)! Julie & Julia is a great date movie, sure to bring out the passion in all of us.

Bon apétit!

4 out of 5