Friday, October 31, 2014

Spy Films, 4 Gems You May Have Missed

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: Sam Rockwell, George Clooney,Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts
Sam Rockwell as a possible spy with perhaps the best cover in the world, as the producer of ludicrous US game shows, such as THE GONG SHOW. Perhaps the finest moment of this movie is when Sam Rockwell marries Drew Barrymore and then tells her in the limousine ride that he is a spy for the CIA. He is worried she will take it badly. Instead, she bursts out laughing and can't stop. We the audience can understand why. There has probably never been a more ridiculous spy in the history of spydom. 

He makes utterly tasteless over the top tv shows with the Gong Show being his lowest but most profitable moment in tv history. George Clooney is the spy who runs him and he also directed this film. Sam Rockwell was not very well known at the time he made this and he is still not a household name. However, he does a bang up job in this role and it is a heck of a part when you realize how ridiculous he has to be yet oddly credible too. I really enjoyed it and it certainly has its funny moments.

Three Days of the Condor: Sydney Pollack, Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway
This is one of Sydney Pollack's 1970s films that put him on the map as a major film director. He and Redford would continue to make films together for years. Redford plays a quiet analyst for the CIA who doesn't do any of the flashy stuff. One day he goes out the back entrance to pick up lunch(one no one else knows about) and by the time he gets back, his entire building of agents has been gunned down. They were in a small building where they posed as a bunch of historical researchers. This wasn't that far off as they spent all day every day reading reports. 

Redford has a big problem because he realizes very quickly that the gunmen must come from inside the CIA as they knew the setup of the building too well. It was only by using the exit he shouldn't have used that he escaped their notice.

He realizes that the minute the gunmen realize they missed one, they will come after him. So he is on the run but he has no experience out in the field. He needs help so takes Faye Dunaway hostage. That is where the film's chemistry really takes off. The two of them are just fantastic together. I've seen this film several times and it never gets old. I tried reading the book once but it lacked the chemistry of the film so I didn't finish the book.

The Little Drummer Girl: George Roy Hill, Diane Keaton
This is based on the John le Carré novel. Charlie, the protagonist, is an actress who needs more excitement, more commitment in her life. This works out to Charlie's being recruited as a spy in the Arab-Israel conflict although Charlie is neither. She is an American. Although she can talk effectively about "the cause," throughout you get the feeling that it is the thrill, not the cause, which makes Charlie tick.

The filmmakers did one thing very, very right here. They cast Diane Keaton to play Charlie. Keaton is very capable of playing nuanced characters. She is utterly believable as an actress who decides spying is her new double life, that she will really make a big difference to the world as a spy. Keaton takes the whole movie upon her shoulders and runs with it. Her main task after her training is that she has to get very close to a terrorist on the other side, to have an affair with him. He is very attractive but deadly and you are not sure which, if either, will survive.

La Femme Nikita: Luc Besson, Anne Parillaud, Jean Reno

Luc Besson's French language film stars Anne Parillaud, who is rescued from death row by a top-secret agency to be trained as an assassin. This was remade in the USA as both a film and a tv series. It is this version which is the very best one though. For one, Luc Besson is an expert at this type of film. He is considered the French master of the action film.

But the two stars, Parillaud and Reno, are hardly slouches. Reno is a veteran of many films but this was early in Parillaud's film career. She is superb. She is off and running very early in the film and it is non stop action from there to the end. She has great style and panache and becomes a superb assassin. She is always about a moment from death herself though. Great fun from beginning to end.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

"Serial" Part II--Better than a Murder Mystery Weekend at a B&B!

This is the continuation of my murder mystery coverage of the podcast "Serial". If you did not read Part I of mine, please start here instead. I also have a version which omits my personal opinions here. The case continues:

Monday, October 27, 2014

"Serial"--way better than any mystery weekend at a B&B!

This is way better than any mystery weekend you could attend at a Bed & Breakfast. Ira Glass of my favorite NPR show, "This American Life", has a new spin off show helmed by his colleague Sarah Koening. It is called "Serial" and it is unraveling a murder mystery weekly.

My Part II is on Wednesday. To start listening to "Serial" go here and to participate in the forum go here.  Part II of my Summary.

please go to:

Friday, October 24, 2014

Musical Films Where Characters Don't Just Break Into Song

Black Snake Moan, Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci
Samuel Jackson plays Lazarus who feels very low because his wife left him for his best friend. Lazarus puts that into the blues numbers he performs later in this film and they are just wonderful. Of course, he fits the biblical image of being dead and needing resurrection quite well too. That resurrection gets into motion when he happens upon Rae one day. She is played by Christina Ricci and her character has been beaten and left on a back road following a wild party.  

This all takes place in a small Tennessee town near Nashville. These characters have no money and the shacks, farms, stores, streets, and blues clubs are filled with people in the same predicament. 

Lazarus takes Rae home and tries to care for her. Rae is a victim of sexual abuse and a bad mother. She throws herself at men and Lazarus is just one more. But he does not take her up on it. Lazarus and Rae instead start to forge a relationship in which they can move on to other people. At one point Lazarus has to chain her up because she is totally out of control and about to go out and do something stupid again.

This is all done to terrific Blues music throughout the film including Jackson's two terrific performances. Even if you hated the film, the Blues music in it is so outstanding that you could just close your eyes and be in auditory heaven.  

All That Jazz, Bob Fosse, Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange 

Bob Fosse beat everyone else to the punch by doing a scathing autobiography less than ten years before his own death. His musical numbers spring organically from his creative self as he tries to get a show off the ground and come to terms with his own death as he will not adjust his life to fit in with his having just recovered from a heart attack. Roy Scheider does a brilliant job playing him.

Jessica Lange is at her most beautiful as the Angel of Death with whom he converses regularly. The problem is that Joe, like the real world Bob Fosse, is a workaholic despite having a heart condition. He is staging a new work for Broadway plus he is recutting his movie Lenny. He even pill pops with speed and smokes like a fiend. Nevertheless, his work is brilliant and the choreography here is out of this world. Fosse began his career as a dancer, not a director, and here is able to pull out all of the stops with the dancing he creates for this film. 

He also has a problem with womanizing and here revisits his marriage with Gwen Verdon, with whom he had his only child, and his many girlfriends. Fosse survived making this film but kept up all the same habits. He dropped dead of a heart attack while walking down the street in 1987 at age 50. He deservedly won every award in show business including the Oscar for his direction of Cabaret.

True Stories, David Byrne, John Goodman

David Byrne's first and last musical about a crazy little town in Texas and the nutty characters who live there, who each in turn perform their musical numbers. Also a love story for John Goodman and Swoozie Kurtz. This is one of John Goodman's earliest roles and he plays Louis with utmost sincerity in his search for love. He was my favorite character in this film.

This was supposed to be Byrne's conversion from rock star to movie director. However, the movie flopped. The public was not ready for something this quirky. Each character has something very eccentric about him or her and Byrne revels in that eccentricity. Then he usually has the character perform musically as well. He captures America in the mid 1980s as it is lived in a rather small town in the great open sky country of Texas. Byrne gives an intro to "The History of Texas" at the start of the film and it is one of the best parts. He mentions that God had to create special people who liked land which looked like this land and this is just one of his quirky yet apt observances. 

The "Parade of Specialness" he stages is indeed special as he puts Shriners in those little cars along with the 'lawnmower brigade. I think Byrne saw this kind of thing disappearing for good and he may have been right as I don't know where someone goes to see this kind of parade nowadays. 

Byrne even puts on the most oddball fashion show that has ever been put to film with one outfit, for example, made out of astroturf. He plunks this bizarre fashion show into a shopping mall which makes it even more bizarre rather than less so. Dinner with Spalding Grey as the patriarch Mr. Culver is a classic and reminds me of the dinner table back in the 1950s as we experienced it. Grey is nicely formal, "pass this to our guest". Grey as this strict and formal patriarchal type oddly works.

He also has a voodoo ceremony with a man in full outfit performing before the voodoo altar. This has one of the best musical numbers.

I loved this film. It is an absurdist look at life and ordinary people with odd quirks living those lives. It never gets old for me. This also exists as a Talking Heads album.  Curiously Byrne has his own band record the album to go with the movie instead of releasing the soundtrack with the characters doing the numbers.

Byrne went back to his musical career after the movie failed. But the Talking Heads did not last long after this. Byrne continued to reinvent himself musically every few years and is still doing so today. The other Talking Heads disappeared.

Pennies From Heaven, Steve Martin

Steve Martin's Depression Era musical of a traveling salesman with marital problems. Wonderful musical numbers emerge from the grim trappings of the Depression. If you are expecting to see Steve Martin the wild and crazy guy appearing here, let me assure you that he is nowhere in sight. 

Not only is this a song and dance musical but Martin plays a serious character. His specific problem is that he is a married man who falls for a teacher played by Bernadette Peters, who is known for her singing talent. One marvelous number occurs when her first grade classroom erupts into song while being whisked into sequined tuxedos. They tap dance atop their tiny desks.  Martin performs musically as well. He tap dances through a fabulously produced Busby Berkeley number.

Peters was Martin's girlfriend and costar for many years. When they broke up, she went to Broadway to star in musicals and he continued on in movies, writing, directing and starring in them. Most of his work was comedies but there were a few times he took huge risks with work that no one identified with his name. This was one of those.

Most people do not know that Christopher Walken trained as a song and dance man. He expected to end up in musicals for his entire professional life. No one today even realizes that he can sing and dance. In the above image, that is Walken in the upper right sliding across a bar in a dance. It may be his only song and dance routine on film. Vernel Bagneris also performs, singing Pennies From Heaven, and Martin has the sky rain gold coins outside a seedy diner for the number.

The brilliance of this film is that it juxtaposes The Great Depression with the happy-go-lucky songs from that era. Those songs helped people get through it until we entered WWII wherein a new style of music emerged. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Women, Where in the World Are They?

There are some things going on in American society with women which leave me baffled. These are things I never expected to be going on in 2014. First, I expected beauty pageants to be gone and by gone I mean entirely. It is hard to think of a process more degrading than for an attractive, bright college woman, usually near graduation, going through a evening gown and swimsuit competition, a talent competition that makes the word talent an oxymoron and a question and answer session that makes her sound like a befuddled twelve year old. Even worse, it has dribbled down to younger girls so that now there are girls of 5 and 6 participating. I would have never thought this could possibly happen when I was either in college or Law School. Why would a woman who now can choose from almost any field of endeavor, choose to do that?

Second, why are weddings even more of a gala event than they were when I got married in 1969? Weddings were very nice in 1969 but generally you did not have to act like you were an English Duchess in the Regency and pull out all of the stops so that all of the nobility plus royalty showed up in your ballroom and made it the crush of the year. The Duchess's ballroom would actually be seen as low key for a wedding today when every single event of the wedding has now become a moment of celebration in as extravagant a fashion as possible. Buying the bridesmaids dresses is now a party and champagne worthy event I've discovered. It is no longer a shopping trip. They are still ugly dresses but now there is a planned party around them. Every single task in the wedding is now an event like this and the price tag of course has zoomed up as well.

There is more fairy tale involved in weddings today than there was even in the 1950s. Weddings aren't even necessarily held at home anymore. You can be like George Clooney and hold it in a different country if you want and that too is becoming more "normal." I don't get it. Why are weddings more fairy tale than ever when we have come off decades of the highest divorce rates ever known to human civilization? And some people repeat the extravagant gala for marriage number two and three and, in one case, yes, I did meet a man embarking on number six. If you are embarking on marriage number six and have planned a fairy tale wedding, I don't even think it is gambling to put money down on that person's being a divorce statistic in six months.

But these are mere quibbles when I get to number three. This one is as serious as can be. Why are young women in high school and college getting blasted on alcohol as an everyday occurrence in campus and dating life? If you can even call it dating. It is more like going out and getting blasted and then whatever happens, happens. It is not as if stupid women are doing this. It is happening to our best and brightest young women all over the country.

One event after another on college campuses triggered this response on me. Either some young woman is getting raped or she is getting murdered.  Hanna Graham's body was just discovered in Virginia (Charlottesville, University of Virginia). She had disappeared about a month ago and volunteers had been looking for her since then. One of them just found her. The interesting thing about this case is that a good deal of Hanna's last night took place either under surveillance cameras or in the presence of witnesses who could clearly remember her.

Hanna drank all night long. I've put her erratic journey around campus in the image above as taken by the cameras. After attending two parties on campus, she then staggered into a bar in town. Everyone who saw her can remember that she could barely stand up she was so drunk. Yet she was walking alone all over campus and it was now after midnight. She met up with a 32 year old man at the bar. He brought her a drink outside. When she was seen later on the surveillance cameras, he was following behind her. Around the time she is seen for the last time on camera, she also calls her friends on her cell phone and tells them she is totally lost. She is actually near to where she started but she is too blasted to tell. And that's that for Hanna.

It is not like Hanna's behavior is isolated. This is going on all over the country and I have no idea why. Emily Yoffe at Slate, shown left, wrote an article on young women have got to stop getting blasted and take charge of their safety. She was attacked by women, especially feminists, saying, "How dare you say this is the woman's problem! It is the men breaking the law. Women have a right to drink." Emily Yoffe's article is here and I am with her on this one. As she puts it, "Young women are getting a distorted message that their right to match men drink for drink is a feminist issue." Her Dear Prudence column is also quite good here.

Well, ok, let me put this plainly. If I am in the jungle and I am in perfect safety with my guards BUT I go ahead and get blasted and wander off without them and encounter some lion who attacks and kills me----that is my fault! It is my fault because I should not be drowning out with alcohol my instinctual drive to survive. I have some obligation not to put myself like a steak in front of some predators who I do not have the ability to fight off of me. That guy following Hannah was such a predator and she had dulled all her senses so she was not able to either fight or flight effectively. She even passed a fair amount of people and lacked the survival instinct to scream to them for help.

Monday, October 20, 2014

21st Century As Seen From 1962 (Seattle World's Fair)

The Seattle World's Fair in 1962 was also called The 21st Century. The whole fair tried to imagine what life would be like in this century. I happened to get into this because I was reading a mystery novel involving that Fair. I got curious and went onto the Google Image search engine and spent time looking at pictures of it. I found it fascinating, both for what they got right and what they got wrong about our present time.  

In studying the above image, right away we notice people certainly looked different. I was a freshman in high school then and this was indeed the way we looked. Look at the computer the woman is using in the upper left. This is evidently what they thought our computers today would look like. They also imagined their being largely office and secretary oriented as opposed to every person in the country being plugged into his or her own personal computer, tablet and smartphone. The main thing that still is right though is that there has to be a keypad somewhere, whether virtual or actual.

 There was no energy concern of any sort in 1962. That is pretty obvious when reviewing the above image. Obviously we were going to be spending a lot of  time in vast glass enclosures. Plus we would be traveling high up in monorails and ski lift knock-offs while building more and more space needle like structures. They also liked having parties in this big glass elevated bubble. Our houses were going to be largely glass too. Little did anyone expect that energy costs would become a crisis, that the politics arising out of it would lead to USA vs. Middle East and the most accurate picture of the 21st Century would have been some suicide planes crash diving into the space needle with thousands of deaths resulting. The main thought that would occur to any one of us today looking at World's Fair Plans would be, "We're just asking for a terrorist hit with this thing." No such worry assailed them in 1962.

One big cause for excitement about the Fair was that the touch tone phone would be introduced there. While doing so, there was also a look at what a video hookup might look like in the future on one's phone. We did end up with this but our phone and video calls equipment look entirely different. Plus it is now built into all of our existing equipment. But this was at least an accurate prediction of where our interests were going. The new modern phone booths were also exhibited whereas nowadays you'd have trouble finding a pay phone of any sort. They are also very excited about vending machines. Although they are still around today, no one is excited by them. I had to laugh at the one girl carrying the sign asking if we are,  "Longing for a simpler time?" Looking at someone with that sign from 1962 while I am in 2014, makes me wonder how much simpler she could have wanted it. We also see a huge extended family attending the fair together. The median age for men getting married for the first time in 1962 was 22.7 whereas for women it was 20.3. The latest figures available are for 2012 wherein men's median age for a first marriage is 28.6 while women's is 26.6. The divorce rate was very low then and very few people pictured here would have been on second or third marriages.

Incredibly, Elvis was a huge feature at the World's Fair because he decided to do one of those godawful movies of his there. No matter what you thought of him as a singer, no one took him seriously as an actor. Since he died relatively young though, he retained his iconic stature. So arguably he and the Space Needle are the commercial items which survived the Fair the longest.

The biggest change of all though is us as a people. Seen here we are a white country of primarily European descent. The women married young and had families young. One also stayed fairly rigidly within certain societal expectations. Everyone dressed pretty much the same and wore similar hair styles, makeup and other accessories. Most people had 2 children. If women worked, they were something like a flight attendant, teacher or nurse. Notice that many of the adult woman at the Fair walk it in low heels and a skirt. Many are even fairly dressed up by today's standards. Today probably every woman would be in tennis shoes and shorts or pants.

Today this Fair would have people of all different colors in it and the younger ones would be mixing the races together very easily. Gay people would be more openly so in this crowd of people too. There would also be more handicapped people in attendance and special provisions for them would be in place. You would see just about everything in clothing, hair, makeup and accessories. There would be plenty of nerds and, standing right next to them, people in purple and green mohawk hair dos.

As for what we'd be predicting for the next century, I am afraid that our thoughts are mainly about Dystopian Societies. So either a Zombie or Climate Catastrophe Based Society would likely be on display.

Friday, October 17, 2014

4 Films About Love -- 2 Comedies & 2 Dramas

Modern Romance, Albert Brooks
This film was made early in Albert Brooks career. It is about how hopeless his comic persona is at having a love life. This is the comic persona Brooks has always played: deeply neurotic, obnoxious verging on offensive, whining and all in all about the last person you'd want to be having a romance with in real life. I don't know how close this is to the "real" Albert Brooks but that doesn't matter.

His character cannot compromise about anything so when something or someone fails to meet his standards, he just can't take it. He will quit right there. He can also be thrown off by the slightest thing and when Michael Jackson comes on singing "She's Out of Your Life" while he's driving on a date, it just ends his whole evening. He can't even handle one song about broken up romance. It is utterly hilarious.

L'Appartement, Vincent Cassel, Monica Bellucci

One facet of this movie that no one mentions but it really is a factor is that two of the actors on the screen are perhaps the sexiest, most magnetic and charismatic stars movie goers have seen in awhile. These two are Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci. They made the movie in 1996 and actually married one another in 1999.  So perhaps the film was helped by this real life sizzling and chemistry. It is difficult to shoot a film involving love, attraction and sexuality if the two actors are absolutely flat with no chemistry between them. 

This French film involves them as former lovers who cannot find one another again. He does spot her one day and follows her to her apartment. However, when he hides in her apartment, he discovers it is someone who looks like her who lives there. But he was sure he saw her, not this other woman. 

This is a very nuanced, layered film. Cassel is definitely the lead because the camera is always on him and he is the one who is searching. Just writing about it, I feel another watching coming on! Some have compared this to Hitchcock and De Palma and it is a fair comparison. Truffaut was another Frenchman who paid homage to Hitchcock with The Bride Wore Black. This film is like that one in style, élan and suspense.

Wings of the Dove, Helena Bonham-Carter, Linus Roache

I generally find Henry James' novels much too impenetrable to read. Thus, I've found myself relying on the film versions of his works instead. His work reaches its finest hour in this adaptation of his novel of the same name. I am glued to my seat every time I watch this for it is a fabulous love triangle beautifully played by all three leads. 

The leading man, Linus Roache, is my favorite actor in this film. He is perfect with both women plus you really feel for his predicament. He also is the most conflicted character. Helena Bonham Carter plays the woman he is in love with but, because he has no money, she sends him to Venice to captivate a rich, dying young woman, Milly, so that Milly will leave him her fortune. 

In the last scenes of the movies, Roache captures facial expressions of this man's conflicts that are sheer perfection. I wanted to see much more of Roache on the screen when I initially saw this in the theater, but he had not played that many roles. In the years since then, he went on to make rather small and independent films but he also had a long term tv role as an attorney on one of the Law & Order shows. He is excellent in the films Priest and Pandemonium. Bonham Carter and the actress who plays Milly are also quite splendid. I can't think of anything negative to say about this film.

Lonely Guy, Steve Martin, Charles Grodin

Steve Martin has had many excellent partners in his films but Charles Grodin is certainly one of his best in this excellent film about the Lonely Guys. Our two heroes are doomed for finding love at every turn it seems. But then there's the idea of a manual and how one gets through life if one is a lonely guy. And Martin and Grodin for the first half of the movie are the embodiment of nerdy Lonely Guy. The epitome of this is when they hold a party and the guests are cardboard cutouts of celebrities. They actually stand around with drink in hand being sociable with the cutouts! But then things start to turn around for the lonely guys. There are especially some good scenes on the bridge where the lonely people go to jump. Turns out that can be the best place for meeting people. Their love lives do turn up, of course, which is made all the sweeter since they start out as such hopeless cases. Martin and Grodin are just brilliant in this.