Thursday, December 31, 2009


Clint Eastwood's Invictus is from start to finish a paen to human decency. The film exploits (in the positive sense of that term) every visual and musical cue to rouse the audience as it tells its tale of a heretofore pitiful South African rugby team's battle for world domination, and respectability, in 1995. The team's struggle was emblematic of the nation's own quest under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Brothers is a perfectly decent movie with credible, spot on performances from beginning to end. Everyone hits the marks, each scene is crafted for optimal believability and the ending is satisfying. It is a good but unremarkable film. The child actress Bailee Madison holds her own when on the screen with Gyllenhaal, Portman and Maguire.

The Road

Yes, The Road is as bleak, maybe bleaker, than you had pictured it in your head while reading the book. But, as McCarthy had intended, those redeeming moments of transcendent humanity are to be found in the boy, played by the young Aussie actor Kodi Smith-McPhee. What a face.

A Serious Man

The Coen Brothers' "A Serious Man" left me sad and blue as I thought about the Jobian troubles that had befallen the mild-mannered physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). Were he not so blasted mild-mannered half of the crap that he had to deal with wouldn't have happened. Therein lies the beauty of this "morality" tale.

Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes really packs a wallop, and that's a good thing. The Holmes / Watson interplay put me in mind of a more amped-up House / Wilson pairing from the TV series House, all bromance and codependency.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


This poster for Pandorum is so off-the-mark it's easy to imagine the designer had not seen the film or read the script. Or maybe the film was once a very different movie. Many reviews have commented on the dozen or so previous sci-fi movies being referenced here ~ Alien, The Matrix, THX 1138 ~ but it reminded me most of the Wizard of Oz set on a enormous colonizing vehicle somewhere in space in the 22nd century. Ben Foster is hunky Dorothy and Dennis Quaid the wizard. The acting is "incredible" and the edits are synaptic but it's a tantric experience. No release.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


Gamer tapped the same nerve as Inglourious Basterds but with less subtlety. I was actually surprised by quality of actors -- Gerard Butler, Michael C. Hall (Dexter), Krya Sedgwick -- in this film about a future world where cyberga...mers pay big buck...s to "puppetmaster" death row inmates through blood sports and sexcapades. The story is nonsense, blood flows freely but the cinematography is exceptional.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds is a masterpiece of cathartic brutality and exquisite, old Hollywood tension and menace. It's riveting and exhausting and Tarantino. Wonderful. Christoph Waltz is the star of the film, not Brad Pitt. As SS Col. Hans Landa, Waltz is chillingly unforgettable. It is his face, not Hitler's or Goebbels', that is seared in mind as the face of Nazism, albeit an opportunistic kind of Nazism. The set piece that opens the film could serve as a master class in studied control. His performance throughout the film is outstanding.

Taking Woodstock

Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock is strangely inert and uninvolving, mainly because the film's lead, Demitri Martin, is so wooden. The wonderful British character actor Imelda Staunton is the lone standout in this movie, as Martin's disappro...ving and controlling Jewish mother. It's beautifully filmed but it's not art. The psychedelic LSD trip is fun.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

District 9

District 9 is a wildly ambitious sci-fi movie with a virtuoso performance by Sharlto Copley as an inept South African bureaucrat who is given the task of relocating about 2 million alien (as in space) refugees from a squalid containment camp to another.... After being exposed to some alien DNA, Copley becomes a whole other character and heads roll (literally). It's fierce and bloody and fun.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" takes the unique "battlefield" horrors of the war in Iraq and their effect on service men and turns the resulting madness both inward and outward with an intensity I've not felt in a film for quite a while. The film follows a trio of short-timers in a bomb squad as they move from one impossibly tense encounter with IEDs or suicide bombers to the next.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


The Orphan was disappointing, not just because the waif-from-hell storyline features the dumbest family in the history of demon children movies but also because a boom mike can be spotted in every other interior scene. How did this shite get released? Good lord! The kid, Isabelle Fuhrman, who's like 12 years old and a native of my hometown, is pretty creepy though. Her Russian accent is a little spotty. Don't ask.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sunbeam Bread Commercial '50s

This commercial features shapeless though faceless female characters and a lumpy, buffoon of a father character that appears to be aping Jackie Gleason and Red Skelton, popular comedic actors of the day.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Duncan Jones's "Moon" borrows from "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Solaris" and "Silent Running" but does manage to offer up a unique vision of alienation and disconnectedness. Sam Rockwell gives a wonderful performance in this film about Sam Bell, a man counting down the days until he's relieved from duty on a desolate lunar mining station. Kevin Spacey voices Bell's computer companion, Gerty. It's captivating.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I'm not a Potterite.I have not read the whole of a single volume in the series. I engage the films as cultural phenomena even though they have been, consistently, quite magical.

To me, this story of a boy wizard is not only the tale of messianic identity and good v. evil, it also appears to be about connectedness in a fractured and threatening world. The orphaned Harry, the reputed Chosen One to lead the final battle against the dark forces, is a figure rooted in other British literary creations like David Copperfield and Tom Brown, but he is such an interesting figure to me. Harry is marked and detached, loved and cared for by a host of people, but essentially disconnected and alone, and lonely, in his quest to defeat "he whose name must not be spoken," a task he seems at once driven by and ambivalent toward. The emotional and psychological dimensions of his life take on richer dimensions in the latest, highly enjoyable film.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

We're All in This Together PSA

I've seen this spot dozens of times now, in movie theaters, and am still torn. I understand the message, I think ~ Working together is better for everyone ~ but why stage it with the Down syndrome kids? It seems to be saying "the least among us will lead us." But what if we don't see Down syndrome children in that way? Doesn't this become patronizing? A similar spot that features a young Down syndrome woman as prom queen, see below, is even more problematic for me. I think it's based on a true story but it strikes me as cloying and condescending and treats the woman like a mascot or maybe an object of pity.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


I'm fairly sure that at some point most of the millions of people who will see Bruno will stop for a second and ask "Why am I laughing?" I laughed more to keep myself from leaving the theater than to share in whatever hilarity was transpiring on the screen. Norman Cousins promoted the therapeutic qualities of laughter. I actually felt depleted by this film, spiritually. Sacha Baron Cohen's heart might be in the right place in getting audiences to confront their issues with homosexuality but the gags seem inappropriate -- not just because of their crudeness -- but because they obscure the message. Maybe other folks will be delighted and enlightened by this film, I wasn't.

Jay Smooth's Reflection about Michael Jackson

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Man's Best Friend

The tone of this commercials is less acerbic than other Folgers spots until the end. The mention of man's best friend at the end seems odd because the puppy bit at the top was so brief the context was lost and it seems a bit of slight against the wife.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Public Enemies

I can't remember the last time a film delivered the whole package ~ impeccable acting at all levels; smart, efficient directing; intelligent art design, a beautiful score, etc. Maybe Eastwood's "Changeling"? In any event, Michael Mann's "Public Enemies" delivers some fine action and two or three wonderful performances ~ Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, Marion Cottliard as his moll Billie Frechette and Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover ~ and immaculate period art direction and a sumptuous score that plays heavily into the narrative but the film is too often over-modulated and frantic and, in that regard, unsatisfying. In fact, the quieter scenes between Depp and Cottliard are splendid. She really is quite an actress. The bloody gunfights, while somewhat artful, felt like homages to Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde and Sam Peckinpah's Wild Bunch. I will say the final reel is some of the best cops and robbers (literally) movie making since Brian DePalma's The Untouchables, but it wasn't enough to make this a great film.

Monday, June 29, 2009

In commemoration of the Stonewall Riots

Photos from Russell Bush's book "Affectionate Men: A Photographic History of a Century of Male Couples (1850s to 1950s), St. Martin's Press.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Away We Go

Sam Mendes doesn't direct a lot, but when he does the results are masterful. American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Jarhead, and Revolutionary Road were all so sharply envisioned and executed that in each instance I felt transported. I was transported by Mendes' latest film, too, but in a different way. I was not so much transported to another place, although that was accomplished. I was transported into a variety of different marital and parental realities.

Working from a script by neo-modernist author Dave Eggers and his wife, Vendela Vida, the film is a road trip with Verona (Maya Rudolph) and Bert (John Krasinski) , an unmarried couple anticipating the arrival of their first child.. They hit the road because Bert's thoughtlessly self-involved parents are moving to Belgium, even though Bert and Verona moved to be near them for the child's birth. Because they're in their 30s, Verona wonders if she and Bert are somehow underdeveloped, immature, not ready for parenthood They decide to visit friends and siblings to see how well they have done. The trip is often hilarious, but underneath the laughs are Verona's anxiety and Bert's perplexity and aching adoration of her, even though she refuses to marry him.

Both Krasinski and Rudolph are tremendous, but Rudolph's performance is especially wonderful.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is an explosive war movie that is substantially more enjoyable because Ramon Rodriguez, left, and Glenn Morshower, below, are in it. Rodriguez absolutely pops off the screen as star Shia LaBeouf's new college roommate, Leo, who is a geek conspiracy theorist. Rodriguez is also appearing in the remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. I first noticed Rodriguez in The Wire; he played Omar Little's last squeeze. And Morshower is one of the more recognizable faces in film and on television, IMO. From 24 to Friday Night Lights, he exudes masculine respectability. Morshower plays General Morshower in the latest Transformers.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Reading movie posters

Well-designed movie posters often reflect
both the content and context of a film
and may go beyond simple promotion to become works of art.
Below are some of my favorites from past years.

The Truman Show (1998)

Even though I'm fascinated by photo mosaics in general,
the use of this technique for the poster of this film of a fabricated life
~ composed of controlled experiences ~ seemed especially appropriate.

Gallipoli (1981)

The meaning of this poster's striking image is not revealed
until the last frame which makes it even more intriguing
and elevates it to more than a promotional device.

The Color Purple (1985)

Though some said Spielberg's film was too sentimental,
the tone and, yes, the color of the movie and
Alice Walker's epistolary novel are captured
in this image of star Whoopi Goldberg.

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

The image of Mia Farrow superimposed over that of a pram
on a lonesome hilltop was sufficiently creepy to make audiences
who weren't familiar with Ira Levin's novel wonder
what the devil the film was about.
Speaking of which ...

The Exorcist (1973)

This image of the solitary hatted figure
under a streetlight was subtle and sophisticated.
Everything most modern posters for horror films aren't.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Last Days

My fascination with the last days dates back to Catholic school and what I call its message of vindication, which is roughly translated as a warning to earthly tormentors that "you just wait until Jesus comes back."

I call this painting "The Second Coming of the Angelic Aryan Nation."
Why are the heavenly host always Nordic? Where are the brothers?

Michelangelo's "The Last Judgment" is behind
the altar in the Sistine Chapel.
Who needs a sermon when this is staring out at you?

This is one of the more disturbing depictions of the rapture.
The souls of the faithful, robed in white,
are yanked out of crashing vehicles and airplanes.
I sense some serious anger issues in this painting.

This is stoner trippy and leads me to wonder, probably inappropriately:
Dude, why do angels have such big freakin' wings?

I call this one "Jesus Comes to Wall Street,"
but a more appropriate title might be "Wall Street Comes to Jesus."
It looks like the guy on the lower right has packed a bag. Insider information?


I caught this Nicolas Cage film at the 2 buck cinema this weekend and was surprised by the movie's attempt to merge (not necessarily reconcile) the divergent opinions about the place of science and faith (read evolution and creation) in our lives. Cage plays an MIT physics professor and son of a minister, whose faith has been shaken not so much by science but by the loss of his wife and the mother of his doe-eyed son. It is the son, Caleb, who receives an odd letter out of a 50-year-old time capsule. Written by a spooky, stringy-haired schoolgirl, the letter is a string of numbers that Cage's character deciphers to discover it's not just a random series but information about catastrophes, natural and manmade. Yes, it's ridiculous but the ending to this mess can be viewed as both apocalyptic and redemptive. In any case, it's worth 2 bucks.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Crest campaign of the '70s

The Crest toothpaste series of commercials that featured children reporting to their fathers after a dental examination offered an interesting twist to the familiar "father as arbiter" trope. In this ethnically diverse series, the dads served as the "pitch men" for the toothpaste; the arbiters were the dentists, who never appeared on-screen. Interestingly, Moms were also absent from most of the commercials in this series though their presence was implied. Because each of the kids burst in on Dad while he was at work or, as in the last spot, at play with the boys, it might be assumed that the mothers brought the youngsters by to brag to their fathers. Though this is a curious narrative decision, it succeeded in placing Dads front in center in ads that did not portray them as clods or dolts or numskulls.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Reading movie posters

Psycho (1960)

This has to be THE most deliberately misleading movie poster in film history. Janet Leigh had a brief scene at the beginning of the film in which she appeared partially dressed but she didn't spend a whole lot of time trotting around in her bra in this movie. And the appearance of the shirtless John Gavin (bottom right) was just as fleeting. And tucking Anthony Perkins, the real star of the flick, on the far left was clearly calculated to throw moviegoers off.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

This poster's image is all edges and sharpness, things that hurt, which is entirely appropriate considering the film and the source novel is set in a world of "ultra violence" and chaos. The poster is disturbing and the text intriguing enough to pull folks in who had never heard of the Anthony Burgess novel. I don't believe this was an original movie poster as the film was first rated X, as was the next film.

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

One of the most famous motion picture portraits, this image ~ cold, brittle and gray ~ reads "desolation." Dustin Hoffman and Angelina Jolie's daddy (Jon Voight) have been immortalized in this film about a gimpy conman and a naively inept gigolo who form a bond on the mean streets.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)

This film and the one that follows are about parties at which the hosts start chewing on the guests. I like the Virginia Woolf poster at top better than the one that displays more conventional photographs of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton because the outlines of the faces of Taylor and Burton spewing at each other in blue and red bounce around in my head.

The Boys in the Band (1970)

This film poster featured the image of the nine men who were in the off-Broadway production ~ the boys, if you will. Playwright Mart Crowley, who never matched this play's success, offered unrelenting anger, bitterness and self-loathing in his play and in the film, which is why the note "is not a musical" is especially rich.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Back to basics

Watch Natural Ivory Soap at

By the '70s, women were challenging traditional beauty standards that many viewed as unrealistic, if not destructive to many women's self-esteem. It appears Madison Avenue got the message, as evidenced by this series of "healthy looking skin" ads from Ivory soap. In this ad, the man is again the arbiter of feminine beauty, but in this instance the standard is not Hollywood glamour but something more "natural." Some modern viewers will probably be perturbed by the woman's passivity and her acceptance that her beau has or has had eyes for another.

Talking Pelham

Denzel Washington and John Travolta are the only reasons to see this remake of The Taking of Pelham 123. Though the writing is uneven, and in several spots grating and disappointing, I found the banter between Washington's Walter Garber, a dispatcher pressed into service as a hostage negotiator by Travolta's crazed urban terrorist Ryder, quite entertaining, the best thing in the film. Conscientious performers who are given weak material often rise above the script to deliver convincing, if not award-winning performances. Such is the case here.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Damsels and detergents

This spot from the mid-60s features the stars of Petticoat Junction (1963-1970) and incorporates the show's central theme: the three Bradley sisters' unending search for husbands. Uncle Joe, the amiable layabout brother of the girls' mother, was comic counterpoint to the sage wisdom dispensed by his sister, Kate. Culture critics are now questioning the portrayal of bumbling, fumbling men in commercials. But bumbling and fumbling men ~ fathers and husbands mainly ~ have been staples in sitcoms since the days of Fibber McGee.

Fakes and fakery

It's taken 50 years of the world thumping me on my thick melon but I'm finally ready to accept that fakes and fakery RULE and the honest and honorable are just in the world for sport. Average people are living their day-to-day being phony, as Holden Caulfield has been ranting for more than half a century.

I blame the fakery wave on TV. We have folks faking outrage on Nancy Grace and others faking outrage over the outrage to get on Glen Beck. The program hosts fake concern when they really don't give a damn about the issue; they just want to keep getting real checks. Millions upon millions of people watch this stuff, knowing these clowns are wealthy fakes, and assume that's the way the world works. Well, I'm here to tell you -- they're right. It does work that way.

I was reading the passage below recently. It's from Teddy Roosevelt's muckraker speech from 1906: There are beautiful things above and roundabout them (muckraking journalists); and if they gradually grow to feel that the whole world is nothing but muck, their power of usefulness is gone. If the whole picture is painted black there remains no hue whereby to single out the rascals for distinction from their fellows. Such painting finally induces a kind of moral color-blindness; and people affected by it come to the conclusion that no man is really black, and no man is really white, but they are all gray. In other words, they neither believe in the truth of the attack, nor in the honesty of the man who is attacked; they grow as suspicious of the accusation as of the offense; it becomes well-nigh hopeless to stir them either to wrath against wrong-doing or to enthusiasm for what is right; and such a mental attitude in the public gives hope to every knave, and is the despair of honest men.

Rather than despair, I'm climbing aboard the Cannonballl heading for Hooterville (a fake train serving a fake town) because folks who come by their possessions or reputations honestly appear to have little of either. Maybe life is better that way but I can't imagine how -- human nature being what it is.

Honest and honorable people don't kiss ass and curry favor so they're laid off first. They don't pad their resumes or inflate their experiences so they don't get hired or promoted. They don't plagiarize or steal the work of others so they don't get bonuses. They're Diogenes' "human beings" and will soon be living in barrels like the great Cynic.

Because I don't want to be made sport of and I want what's coming to me, I'll be joining the rest of the fakes and pretend that what doesn't matter does and what has little or no significance is actually overflowing with importance. I'll agree to do things and won't, I'll say 'yes' and mean 'no,' I'll smile and be falsely villainous, to quote Shakespeare's Richard III, and pray I don't end up like him.

What a mess

This commercial from the '70s is illustrative of what one media critic called the depiction of husbands as "childish-but-lovable-goofballs." Once again, the ad is targeted at those who purchase household cleaning products, women, but why must the man of the house be the brainless mess maker? Have these depictions evolved over the past 30+ years?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Flintstones cigarette ad

Celebrity endorsements are advertising staples, and before cigarette ads were pulled from television in the early '70s, stars of popular programs shilled for Chesterfields, Camels, Philip Morris and other brands. This advertisement from the early '60s features Fred and Barney ducking Wilma and Betty as the women tend to household chores. Remember, during its initial run from 1960-1966, The Flintstones was broadcast on ABC during prime time.

Hey, Mabel

This animated commercial from the '50s interests me for a couple of reasons. It exploits to comic effect the traditional division of labor between husbands and wives. But because the animation doesn't really match the words of the jingle, it is quite likely a radio jingle repurposed for television. The section about the yard chores does not suggest in any way that it's the wife who is doing them. In fact, it makes little narrative sense.

Role model

I'm interested in father figures and father surrogates in television commercials. As narrative devices, teachers, coaches and older relatives are often deliverers of important life lessons to young boys ~ a common literary convention. I suspect that modern-day cynicism and Gerbner's "mean world syndrome," which contends that heavy consumers of broadcast news often believe society is more dangerous than it actually is, may cause some to view such depictions as naive, if not inappropriate ~ and not because the boy's kindly uncle fostered his smoking habit.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

E-mail hell

Following inferences that could be challenged by the slightest bit of contradictory evidence, Ernest L. Wiggins of the USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications has come to STRONGLY believe in the existence of a natural phenomenon that prevents reply e-mails from escaping their senders.

"I've been collecting evidence for the past 15 years or so in a university setting and have documented the most 'vulnerable' reply messages originate in student accounts," said Wiggins, a former journalist and recovering e-mail junkie.

He said the interrupted replies most likely read "Thank you for that concise and timely response to my urgent query" or "That time suits me and I'll be there to meet with you about my late assignment."

"I've also seen evidence that some original e-mails from student accounts have been nibbled on because they lack salutations like 'Hello' or 'Dear Professor Wiggins.' Rather, they just state 'I wasn't in class last time what did I miss'."

In recent years, Wiggins said, he has noticed the phenomenon spreading beyond university exchanges to devour even brief courtesy responses in general business and friendly communication.

"'Thanks,' 'You're Welcome,' and 'See You Then' are disappearing like Skittles from a child's hand. My research STRONGLY suggests that once the black hole starts in it's best to try other modes of communication ~ phoning or going to your correspondent's desk," Wiggins said.

He said early evidence indicates, ironically, that newspaper, magazine and journal editors are particularly prone to black hole infestation. "Few if any reply messages regarding jobs or internships seem to be getting out," he said.

All of this "evidence" has led Wiggins to believe that the reply message black hole is intelligent life come to earth (kinda like Keanu Reeves) to keep humans from destroying themselves through their foolish dependence on a deceptive technology that appears to enhance the quality of life but actually makes humans less communicative.

"In hopes of getting the communication angel / reply e-mail black hole to back off, I'm urging everyone to write more cards and letters and phone this year," he said.

Wiggins said he's submitted via e-mail a full-blown paper detailing his research to the editors of a prestigious journal with a circulation of 150 but has yet to hear back from them.

Black Jesus

I've long viewed the "Black Jesus" movement as a statement that there is as much justification for this representation of Jesus as the traditional European depictions. I don't think anyone is actually arguing that Jesus looked liked this. I think the argument from blacks to whites has been if "you" can render the savior in "your" image, why can't we?

This Black Jesus looks like Morgan Freeman.

This seems to me to be a black Catholic depiction. Maybe it's being used by missionaries in Africa; that's where most of the church's growth is happening.

This Black Jesus is a pinup. This strikes me as overtly sexual and kinda wrong.

This is the identity politics I was talking about. Black Jesus ministering to black children.

Again. This strikes me as overtly sexualizing Jesus. Why go there?

This is my favorite Black Jesus. It's conceptually interesting and modern.


  Director Danny Boyle's hummably insightful morality tale, Yesterday, is a sure starmaker for amiable Hamish Patel, who plays ...