Saturday, October 10, 2015.

October 3, 2012


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September 15, 2012


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August 26, 2012


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August 25, 2012

Men at Lunch

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August 14, 2012

Searching for Sugar Man

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August 3, 2012

The Future of the Film Industry

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July 28, 2012

Life of PI

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July 3, 2012

Last Train Home

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June 30, 2012

The Power of Art

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June 26, 2012

What's not to like?

Frank Langella as a retired (maybe) jewel thief, a robot butler and Susan Sarandon as the love interest -- this could be pretty good.

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June 21, 2012

The Master

The new Paul Thomas Anderson movie set for release this fall based supposedly on L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology.

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June 3, 2012

Hyde Park on Hudson

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May 11, 2012

Monsieur Lazhar

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May 5, 2012

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

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April 29, 2012


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March 17, 2012

The Kid with a Bike

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January 24, 2012

A Separation

Here is a short interview with the director, Asghar Farhadi.

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November 18, 2011

The Lost Steve Jobs Interview

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October 26, 2011

Margin Call

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October 7, 2011


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September 24, 2011

The Quiet Beatle

Check out the trailer for Martin Scorsese's HBO documentary on George Harrison, whose widow Olivia is interviewed here.

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September 23, 2011

J. Edgar

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June 21, 2011

The Rule of Law

A Man for All Seasons Paul Scofield.jpg

In an insightful scene from the Academy Award-winning movie A Man for All Seasons, one of Sir Thomas More's apprentices -- Richard Rich -- confronts Thomas while he is chatting with his wife, daughter, and his daughter's fiancee, Will Roper, who is an aspiring lawyer.

Rich proceeds to beg Sir Thomas for a political appointment, which Thomas refuses because he knows that Rich is prone toward corruption and would never be able to resist the bribes that he would be offered in such an appointment. Sir Thomas thought Rich should pursue a career as a teacher to avoid such temptations.

An embittered Rich proceeds to leave Sir Thomas and his family to take a political job with Thomas Cromwell, who has been ordered by King Henry to pressure Thomas to take the King's oath forsaking Catholicism and the Pope. It is obvious to everyone in the room that the resentful Rich will ultimately betray Sir Thomas, which indeed he does later in the story.

Rich's departure leads to the following exchange in which Sir Thomas lucidly explains to his family members the importance of maintaining the rule of law and not trumping up charges even in regard to an unsavory man who will betray him:

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June 18, 2011


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May 29, 2011


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May 15, 2011

Tales of ice-bound wonderlands

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May 14, 2011

Seven Days in Utopia

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May 12, 2011

The Amazing Linotype

The fascinating documentary's website is here.

"Linotype: The Film" Official Trailer from Linotype: The Film on Vimeo.

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May 6, 2011

From The Rough

The story behind the film -- which is scheduled to open this fall -- is here.

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April 29, 2011

Why art is important

Legendary director Warner Herzog reminds us of the importance of art in his latest film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The trailer for the film and a Scientific American interview of Herzog are below. The NY Times review is here.

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March 23, 2011

Even the Rain

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March 18, 2011

Tournament Time

With the beginning of the NCAA Tournament, it's a good time to check out the NY Times' A.O. Scott's excellent analysis of the best basketball movie ever made, Hoosiers. Enjoy!

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February 26, 2011

Of Gods and Men

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December 31, 2010

The Beauty of Pixar

H/T Jason Kottke.

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December 29, 2010

Lyle Lovett on Houston

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December 21, 2010

Casino Jack Abramoff

Kevin Spacey is a national treasure.

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September 26, 2010

Journey through Canyons

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September 4, 2010

A Film Unfinished

The film's website is here.

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August 30, 2010

McMurtry's Hollywood

McMurtry's Hollywood One of the wonderful things about owning a Kindle is that it is easy to download and read a book that you might have put off for awhile until the stack of books on the nightstand receded a bit.

One such book is Larry McMurtry's latest, Hollywood: A Third Memoir (Simon & Schuster 2010). McMurtry has been writing screenplays for Hollywood now for the better part of 50 years, so he has a wealth of anecdotes to pass along about the movie industry.

And somewhat surprisingly, McMurtry passes along keen insight into the business of how movies are conceived, made and sometimes not made.

For example, after the success of the 1971 film Last Picture Show, which was based on McMurtry's novel of the same name, McMurtry observed the following about the Academy Award-winning stars of that movie, Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson:

Ironically, but not surprisingly, when Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman won Oscars for their performances, they decided that, by God, they were stars, and acted like stars from then on.

The first thing they did, as stars in their own heads, was price themselves out of the market, which, Oscars or not, assessed them rather more modestly than they assessed themselves.

Refreshingly, despite his obvious affection for Tinseltown, McMurtry candidly admits that he was drawn to it by the money. As he observes:

Money trumped talent, and, in the movie business, that is usually the case.

He even learned how to be a cost-effective screenwriter:

[T]he fact that I came from a generation of cattlemen gave me a slight edge - I learned not to have scenes in my Westerns that would be prohibitively expensive.

One way to achieve that was to reduce the number of animals to the lowest possible figure. Animals are well protected on movie sets, and are very expensive to use. I think they used three sets of the famous pigs in Lonesome Dove, pigs who in the narrative walk all the way from Texas to Montana only to get eaten.

Finally, on the age-old issue of whether a movie is art or a profit center:

[B]ut any thinking based on the conviction that one movie is art and another not is purely speculative. Only time will answer that question.

If you enjoy good writing, insightful observations and Hollywood, then pick up Hollywood: A Third Memoir. You will not be disappointed.

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August 26, 2010

Inside Job

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July 29, 2010

The Extra Man

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July 18, 2010


I caught this remarkable documentary on Friday night at the Angelika. Anyone interested in the issues addressed in this earlier post will not want to miss it.

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April 24, 2010

Touring the world in 80 seconds

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March 18, 2010

Two fun how-to videos


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March 14, 2010

50 Impressions in 50 Seconds

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February 24, 2010

No way to fight a war

urban4 Here we go again. U.S. military forces are put on the defensive because of what might be an unfortunate mistake in prosecuting the war against the Taliban.

When are we going to learn that fighting wars under unrealistic rules of engagement is a waste of time and precious resources?

A reasonable case can be made that the U.S. should not be conducting military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Similarly, a reasonable case can be made that such operations are necessary for the defense of the U.S.

But once the decision is made to commit military forces, no reasonable case can be made -- particularly given the enormous difficulties faced-- that U.S. Armed Forces should be constrained from winning the war by unrealistic rules of engagement.

If we are unwilling to stomach to do the dirty business that is necessary to win such wars, then we have no business getting involved in them in the first place. The defense summation in Breaker Morant brilliantly frames the issue in the context of Britain's involvement in the Boer War:

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January 3, 2010

Is it time for hoops yet?

After all the mediocre bowl games over the past several days, it's time to turn to the basketball season. A good way to start is with one of the best hoops scenes in the history of cinema, Jimmy's winning shot from Hoosiers. Enjoy.

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January 1, 2010

The Dude abides in academia

jeff bridges Somehow, it's comforting to know as we move into 2010 that analysis of The Big Lebowski has moved into academic circles.

Of course, these emerging academic treatments have a ways to go before they can rival Rob Ager's work on the film, the first installment of which can be viewed here.

Meanwhile, if you don't mind some pretty salty language, enjoy the clip below of the Dude and his friends discussing what to do about his rug.

Happy New Year!

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December 6, 2009

"I hate rude behavior in a man. Won't tolerate it."

Lonesome Dove Below is the latest In the continuing series of excellent scenes (previous here and here) from the outstanding television mini-series of Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Lonesome Dove.

In this one, Tommy Lee Jones as Capt. Woodrow F. Call delivers one of the most frightening beatings in the history of cinema to a scout for a U.S. Army troop who attempts to take by force a horse from one of Call's men. That's Houston's Danny Kamin playing the part of the U.S. Army Captain who directs his men to gather up what's left of the scout after Call is done with him.

The title to this post -- which is Call's brief post-beating explanation to the dumbfounded townsfolk of the reason for his rather drastic action -- is my wife's and my favorite line from the movie.

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November 21, 2009

Gus Dies

Lonesome Dove Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove is one of the best Texas novels of our time. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was later made into a wonderful television mini-series, which starred Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as the iconic former Texas Rangers, Gus McRae and Woodrow Call.

One of the best scenes from the mini-series -- and arguably one of the best scenes ever produced for television -- is the scene in which Gus dies after being badly injured in an Indian ambush. After searching for his missing friend, Call finds Gus in a doctor's office after Gus has had one of his gangrene-infected legs amputated. Rather than have his other infected leg amputated, Gus elects to die.

Two old friends -- played by brilliant actors at the top of their game -- have a final conversation. Television has never been better. Enjoy.

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November 7, 2009

Customer service

Robert Duvall -- in his classic role of former Texas Ranger Gus McCrae in Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove -- reminds a bartender the importance of good customer service.

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October 24, 2009

Inspiration for a football Saturday

Still one of the finest endings in the history of cinema. Charles Dutton as Rudy's mentor Fortune, Jon Favreau as D-Bob and Ned Beatty as Rudy's father steal the scene.

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September 6, 2009

Confession and Avoidance

As our own country confronts the difficult issues involved in conducting war, it seems appropriate to recall the closing defense argument in one of the all-time great lawyer movies, Breaker Morant.

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August 12, 2009

Colbert does Julie & Julia

The crack about "certainly there was something they haven't deep-fat fried yet" is an instant classic.

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August 4, 2009

I thought Ghostbusters seemed familiar

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August 2, 2009

A Serious Man

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July 16, 2009

Big Fan

I suspect that the NFL would prefer that you watch something else going into this upcoming season, but Big Fan looks interesting.

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July 12, 2009

They just don't make movie trailers like this anymore

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July 8, 2009

Crossing Heaven's Border

Over the past decade, tens of thousands defectors have crossed the dangerous waters of the Tumen and Yalu Rivers into northeast China to escape from North Korea, the world’s last closed Communist state. In the hour-long documentary Crossing Heaven’s Border, Wide Angle tells the moving stories of a few of those defectors.

Pastor Chun Ki Won is the director of Durihana, a Christian missionary organization that helps North Korean defectors make the treacherous journey along the Asian underground railroad to safety in South Korea. In the six-minute interview below, Chun describes the ordeal that the defectors endure and the complex relationship that they have with Christianity. The Wide Angle website on Crossing Heaven's Border is here.

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July 4, 2009

The Yankee Doodle Boy

The late Michael Jackson was inarguably one of the most talented entertainers of our time and certainly one of the most innovative dancers. But well before Jackson, there was James Cagney, who was every bit as talented an entertainer and dancer as Jackson. In fact, I seem to recall reading an interview of Jackson years ago in which he admitted that he patterned many of his dance techniques on those of Cagney.

Although better known for his gangster movie roles, Cagney was actually Hollywood's best dancer for much of his long and storied career. Check out three of Cagney's signature dance scenes below from the 1942 film, Yankee Doodle Dandy, in which Cagney plays the early-20th century composer, George M. Cohan.

The first video below is probably Cagney's most famous dance sequence, the "Yankee Doodle Boy" scene from Cohan's first big-hit musical in the movie. The end of that video includes a short clip of a later salute to Cagney by Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, which serves primarily to prove just how far Cagney's glorious talent exceeded that of a couple of pedestrian Hollywood hoofers. The third video below is the final dance scene of the movie in which Cagney as an ebullient Cohan descends the White House staircase after receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Roosevelt. Note that the scene is shot in one take (the camera never strays from Cagney) and Cagney never once looks down at his feet. Heck, I cannot even walk down a staircase of that size without watching my feet. Enjoy!


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June 30, 2009

The Stoning of Soraya M.

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June 27, 2009

The Hurt Locker

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June 21, 2009

The Human Experience

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June 20, 2009

The Defense of Freedom

There is no question that President Obama is confronted with a delicate diplomatic situation in regard to the ongoing political unrest in Iran. But it is ironic that the main issue that is bubbling over on the streets of Tehran is the same one that John Quincy Adams addressed in the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of the illegally imported slaves that is wonderfully portrayed in the Stephen Spielberg movie, Amistad. In a magnificent performance, Anthony Hopkins plays the elderly Adams defending the slaves before the Supreme Court. Enjoy.

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June 18, 2009

Final Argument

The late Paul Newman in The Verdict playing a talented but alcoholic lawyer who gets a final opportunity to redeem a disappointing career in a difficult medical malpractice case. Enjoy.

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May 26, 2009

There is no crying in baseball

With the passing of Memorial Day, it's officially baseball season, even though the dang NBA Playoffs seem endless. Thus, it's time for Tom Hanks as exasperated Manager Jimmy Dugan to remind us of the best baseball tirade in cinematic history. Enjoy.

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May 22, 2009

Brothers at War

The trailer for the new documentary -- particularly appropriate for the Memorial Day weekend -- is below.

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May 8, 2009

Mostly for Trekkies

With the latest Star Trek movie opening this weekend, you may want to pass the following video of an old William Shatner Saturday Night Life sketch along to your Trekkie friends. Be sure to watch through the end.

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May 4, 2009

Princess Leia can roast with the best of them

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May 3, 2009

The Butcher vs. The Oilman

Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York has a discussion with Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview of There Will Be Blood.

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May 1, 2009

American Violet

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April 27, 2009

Barcelona 1908

This 36 Hours in Barcelona column in Sunday's New York Times reminded me of this fascinating video of Barcelona in 1908 shot from a streetcar. Enjoy.

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April 18, 2009


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February 28, 2009

The Price of Progress

As noted here last fall, one of the key dynamics that is delaying the recovery of financial markets is the resistance of many societal forces to allow the markets to allocate the risk of loss among the various investors in failed businesses.

Inasmuch as private capital will not invest in even a potentially viable business until that company's financial condition is likely to reward such an investment, the liquidation of unviable companies is an essential part of the process that has allowed market-based economies to generate the most wealth and jobs throughout modern history.

Despite the foregoing, the beneficial aspects of liquidating unprofitable businesses remains often unappreciated. A scene from the 1991 Norman Jewison film "Other's People Money" illustrates this truth wonderfully, first as Gregory Peck's character demonizes the forces of liquidation and then as Danny DeVito's "Larry the Liquidator" shatters the myths upon which such demonizing rests. Enjoy.

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February 26, 2009

The Making of the Godfather

the-godfather Don't miss Mark Seal's wonderful Vanity Fair piece on the making -- and particularly the war over casting -- of The Godfather:

With The Godfather, the era of the $100 million blockbuster had begun, and its creator was the last to know.

“I had been so conditioned to think the film was bad—too dark, too long, too boring—that I didn’t think it would have any success,” says Francis Ford Coppola.

“In fact, the reason I took the job to write [a screenplay for the 1974 remake of] The Great Gatsby was because I had no money and three kids and was sure I’d need the money. I heard about the success of The Godfather from my wife, who called me while I was writing Gatsby. I wasn’t even there."

"Masterpiece, ha! I was not even confident it would be a mild success.”

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December 12, 2008

Get inspired

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December 6, 2008

Frost/Nixon looks interesting

Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (Scribner 2008), provides more insight into Nixon's fascinating relationship with television.

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November 29, 2008

100 Movie Spoilers in 5 Minutes

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October 24, 2008

My Beijing Birthday

bejing_olympics_2008 Take a couple of minutes to watch the trailer for what may be one of the most important movies of our time, My Beijing Birthday (H/T James Fallows).

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October 12, 2008

Stone and the capitalist roaders

Don't miss Larry Ribstein's post on Oliver Stone's financing philosophy in regard to his new movie about George W. Bush -- W -- the trailer of which is below:

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September 28, 2008

Paul Newman, R.I.P.

The NY Times' Manohla Dargis reviews Newman's film career.

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September 10, 2008

Movies in five words each

bogie casablanca-002 What with Hurricane Ike scheduled to bear down on the upper Texas Gulf coast over the weekend and the Texans looking as pathetic as ever, we could use a bit of levity around here.

So, check out The AFI Top 100 Movies... In 5 Words Each (H/T Craig Newmark). Several good ones include:

2) Casablanca (1942): Great love story. Plus: Nazis!

32) The Godfather Part II (1974): Advice: stop after this one.

42) Rear Window (1954): Watch a guy watch guys.

Following on the movies theme, if you have a spare ten minutes, check out this incredible YouTube video entitled "100 Movies, 100 Quotes, 100 Numbers."

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August 5, 2008


Come to think of it, I had a difficult time understanding Batman at times, too.

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July 19, 2008

New Movie Time

My boys are dragging me to the The Dark Knight this weekend and, based on early reviews, I'm reasonably sure that it will be quite good. But truthfully, I'm looking forward more to the new Coen Brothers movie, Burn After Reading:

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May 16, 2008

Friday Musings

Travis Bickle So, did you know that Taxi Driver is the greatest wealth-creating movie of all-time?

Speaking of movies, actor Mickey Rourke has been down on his luck for the past several years, but he sure had a good run of movies in the 1980's.

Finally, singer-songwriter Hayes Carll, fresh off the release of his new CD, returns home to The Woodlands for a Friday night show at Dosey-Doe. I'll be there, so come by and say hello!

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April 25, 2008

How the mighty have fallen

deniro_pacino Some folks thought I was too hard (see also here) on the Stros and Craig Biggio for turning the Stros' 2007 season into a death march to Bidg's 3,000th hit.

However, my criticism of the Stros and Bidg was child's play in comparison to this LA Times broadside on fading Hollywood leading men, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. The following will give you a taste:

Pacino has made a string of bad films lately, including the famously awful "Gigli," "The Recruit" and "Two for the Money," where he hams it up as an unscrupulous football oddsmaker. If anyone has made more movies for the money than Pacino, it would be De Niro, who has largely abandoned serious dramatic work for a spate of forgettable horror and crime thrillers (try sitting through "Hide and Seek" or "Godsend") and lowbrow comedy high jinks like "Meet the Fockers" and "Analyze That."

De Niro's most recent film, "What Just Happened?," an inside-the-movie-biz comedy, got such an abysmal reception at Sundance that it limped out of the festival without a sale (it's expected to close the Cannes Film Festival this year). De Niro cut his longtime ties with CAA last week, defecting to Endeavor, inspiring a venomous response purportedly from one CAA agent that was e-mailed all over town. Claiming that De Niro asks for a $1-million production fee on his pictures to help fund his Tribeca empire in New York, it minces few words, saying, "Bobby held us responsible for his own greed, his own avarice and his own megalomania. And it's just like the studios now ask us: Why should we pay this guy -- who doesn't open a movie -- the payoff to his production company, just so he can add his name as a producer?"

Also check out this Variety review and related blog post on Pacino's latest movie "88 Minutes," which is already being included in some "worst ever" lists.

Tough place, that Hollywood.

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April 8, 2008

Enjoying John Adams

john adams My son Cody and I have been thoroughly enjoying each Sunday night episode of the HBO mini-series John Adams, which is based upon David McCullough's brilliant biography of Adams. Given the extraordinary talents, troubling contradictions and fascinating relationships among the pivotal leaders of the American revolutionary era -- Adams, Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin and Burr, among others -- I have always wondered why some enterprising filmmaker hadn't made a first-rate movie about the era. John Adams producer Tom Hanks should be commended for pulling it off in a splendid manner. Rebecca Cusey's favorable review of the mini-series is here.

My vote for the book upon which the next movie of this era should be based -- Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton (Penguin Press 2004). Two other excellent recent books on this era are Jay Winik's The Great Upheaval (Harper 2007) and Joseph Ellis' American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic (Knopf 2007).

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January 5, 2008

The Great Debaters

The%20Great%20Debaters.jpgMy younger daughter, my wife and I took in Denzel Washington's new film the other night, The Great Debaters. Although the story was somewhat formulaic and the movie certainly not perfect, we found the movie to be hugely entertaining. The acting is superb, particularly the reliable Mr. Washington and newcomer Denzel Whitaker, a delightful young actor who literally steals the show as the youngest of the college debaters. Mr. Washington, who also directed, wisely decided to tell the story through Mr. Whitaker's character (James Farmer, Jr.), and Mr. Whitaker is more than up to the task. What a talent!

Interestingly, the always-excellent Forest Whitaker plays James Farmer, Sr., the father of the young Mr. Whitaker's character in the movie. However, despite their common last name, the two are not related.

At any rate, in discussing the movie on the way home afterward, my daughter observed that it sure is a good thing that the horrific racism depicted in the movie is not condoned in American society anymore. My reply was that brutal discrimination of blacks is still not as uncommon as we like to think. Scott Henson and Radley Balko comment on the unacceptable revelations of, at minimum, prosecutorial negligence in Dallas. Where is the outrage?

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September 16, 2007

Gambon on acting

sir-michael-gambon.jpgSir Michael Gambon is one of the finest character actors of our day. In the brief video below (h/t to my son, Cody), he brilliantly explains his theory on acting. Enjoy.

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April 12, 2007

Good training for taxi drivers

lives%20of%20others.jpgThe Lives of Others is a masterful Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck film about the Stasi, the East German secret police force, during the final days of the Communist government. I highly recommend that you see it if you have the chance.

This Roger Boyes/Times article about the movie passes along Alex Latotzky's clever observation, which you will understand perfectly once you see the movie:

"Some ex-Stasi became taxi drivers, and very good ones, too; you just had to give your name and they knew the address."

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March 5, 2007

On the vagaries of a movie's success

ruffalo.jpgOne of the many benefits of having a couple of college-age sons who are movie buffs is that they take me only to good movies. That happened this weekend, as one of my sons took me to the new David Fincher movie, Zodiac, the movie about the taunting serial killer in the Bay Area during the 1970's who was never caught. The movie is excellent and has opened to very good reviews.

On the other hand, Wild Hogs, one of those movies that is so ghastly that it makes you cringe while merely watching the preview, also opened this weekend to appropriately awful reviews. Joel Morgentstern, who writes good movie reviews for the Wall Street Journal, sized up Wild Hogs this way ($):

Wild horses couldn't drag me to see "Wild Hogs" a second time, but seeing it once can be a liberating experience. Not in the same sense that its four middle-class, middle-aging buddies from suburban Cincinnati liberate themselves from work and family to recapture their youth during a road trip to California on their Harleys. The movie frees you of the belief that making it in Hollywood requires finely honed skills. If the writer and director of this coarsely honed sitcom could get hired, then the studio doors must be wide open.

So, how did these two films do at the box office in their opening weekend? Wild Hogs raked in a robust $38 million, the third-highest grossing March opening on record and the biggest start ever for a road trip comedy. On the other hand, Zodiac generated only an estimated $13.1 million, which was smallest start for one of Fincher's films in terms of admissions.

Inasmuch as Zodiac is quite good and Wild Hogs is perfectly dreadful, how could this be?

Art DeVany explains.

Posted by Tom at 5:21 AM | Comments (1) |

December 18, 2006

Is Tony Blair's Princess Di premonition coming true?

Tony Blair-big.jpgDuring a scene of Stephen Frears' clever film, The Queen, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's staff is relishing the public disdain for the Royal Family's restrained response to Princess Diana's death because it makes Blair -- who made a passionate public response -- look good in comparison. Blair -- played brilliantly by Michael Sheen -- grows frustrated with his staff's gloating because he knows that the same public venom that is being directed toward the Royal Family could just as easily be directed toward him.

Based on this Daily Telegraph article, Blair may be receiving precisely what he feared:

We have become like any other nation. No more can we tell ourselves that British corruption scandals are qualitatively different from those of hot countries, or that the peccadilloes that shake our polity would barely make the newspapers in Italy. In 1994, in his first major speech as Labour leader, Tony Blair promised that, under his leadership, Britain would never again be out of step with Europe. Now, in a grisly kind of way, his ambition has been fulfilled.

With so many sleaze stories in our news pages, it is easy to become confused. A prominent Labour donor has been profiting from the recommendations of his own task-force. Gordon Brown's supporters accuse Mr Blair of seeking to drag their man into the mire with him. Meanwhile, the Government has ordered an abrupt halt to the inquiry into allegations of hidden arms commissions, just as others begin to suspect corruption.

The sheer blizzard of allegations can leave us snow-blind. Perhaps, we tell ourselves, this is what all governments do. Perhaps Labour is no different from its predecessors. After all, wasn't John Major brought down after a series of sexual and financial scandals?

Yes, he was. But what is happening now is of a different order. The central accusation against this ministry – that it has sold favours, possibly even places in the legislature, to secret donors – is one that has not been seriously levelled at a British government since the introduction of the universal franchise. [. . .]

Tony Blair's belief in the superiority of his motives leads him to reason that, when the New Labour project is at stake, the ends justify the means.

We saw this within weeks of his accession when he sought to explain the Ecclestone affair – the first of many cash-for-favours scandals – on the basis that he was a pretty straight kinda guy. That, essentially, remains his attitude: he regards complaints about probity as petty next to what he is doing for Britain.

A decade later, parliament is cheapened, and the police have been called into Downing Street. That, more than the transformation of his party, more than Scottish devolution, more even than Iraq, will be his legacy.

Posted by Tom at 4:29 AM | Comments (0) |

October 6, 2006

Scorsese scores again

Nicholson and DiCaprio.jpegIt's always worth noting when Martin Scorsese produces a film, and his newest one -- The Departed -- with Jack Nicholson, Leanardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and an outstanding supporting cast opens today. The initial reviews indicate that it's another Scorsese masterpiece:

NY Times;

Richard Roeper (Chicago Sun-Times);

Joe Morgenstern (WSJ $); and

reviews via Google.

Posted by Tom at 6:37 AM | Comments (1) |

August 28, 2006

The Coen Brothers do Marfa

Marfa.gifThis NY Times story reports on the culture shock that film directors Joel and Ethan Coen ("Raising Arizona," “Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) and their Hollywood cast are experiencing in the far west Texas tourist enclave of Marfa while filming the Coen Brothers' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men. The Coen Brothers movie is one of two films currently being shot in Marfa, which is not exactly Palm Springs, if you know what I mean. The moviemakers are also discovering that folks in West Texas are not inclined to change their ways to accomodate a couple of film crews:

[I]n some ways Marfa’s shrugging attitude baffled the film crews. There are only a handful of restaurants in town, and if you’re hungry past 9 p.m., you have to settle for the local gas stations’ dizzying array of fried food. Both crews asked local restaurants to either open earlier or stay open later, and most declined. “That’s frustrating,” [one of the producers] acknowledged. “We’ve been working six-day weeks, and on our one day off — Sunday — nothing’s open. Everybody’s been very welcoming, but they’re like, ‘We’re not going to change our ways.’ ”

Even though both crews brought in hundreds of people, many local business owners found their stay to be prohibitive to their businesses, since Marfa’s economy is based on tourism. “The movies filled up all the hotels, and they work late and are fed through their caterer,” said Ms. [Maiya] Keck, [a Marfa] restaurateur. “This is the first week the hotels haven’t been full of movie people, and we’ve been so busy. I’m so glad it’s back to normal. Now we can go to our coffee shop and not have to wait 45 minutes to get our cappuccino.”

Posted by Tom at 5:55 AM | Comments (0) |

July 3, 2006

The random nature of movie success

moviedirectorclapper.jpgThis fascinating Leonard Mlodinow/LA Times special (registration req.) explains why I am utterly incapable of predicting which movies will be successful. In reality, nobody can:

The magic of Hollywood success—how can one account for it? Were the executives at Fox and Sony who gambled more than $300 million to create the hits "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "The Da Vinci Code" visionaries? Were their peers at Warner Bros. who green-lighted the flop "Poseidon," which cost $160 million to produce, just boneheads?

The 2006 summer blockbuster season is upon us, one of the two times each year (the other is Christmas) when a film studio's hopes for black ink are decided by the gods of movie fortune—namely, you and me. Americans may not scurry with enthusiasm to vote for our presidents, but come summer, we do vote early and often for the films we love, to the tune of about $200 million each weekend. For the people who make the movies, it's either champagne or Prozac as a river of green flows through Tinseltown, dragging careers with it, sometimes for a happy, wild ride, sometimes directly into a rock.

But are the rewards (and punishments) of the Hollywood game deserved, or does luck play a far more important role in box-office success (and failure) than people imagine?

We all understand that genius doesn't guarantee success, but it's seductive to assume that success must come from genius. As a former Hollywood scriptwriter, I understand the comfort in hiring by track record. Yet as a scientist who has taught the mathematics of randomness at Caltech, I also am aware that track records can deceive.

That no one can know whether a film will hit or miss has been an uncomfortable suspicion in Hollywood at least since novelist and screenwriter William Goldman enunciated it in his classic 1983 book "Adventures in the Screen Trade." If Goldman is right and a future film's performance is unpredictable, then there is no way studio executives or producers, despite all their swagger, can have a better track record at choosing projects than an ape throwing darts at a dartboard.

That's a bold statement, but these days it is hardly conjecture: With each passing year the unpredictability of film revenue is supported by more and more academic research.

Read the entire highly entertaining article. The money quote comes from Art DeVany, who really should have been an expert witness for the plaintiffs in Disney-Ovitz:

"Today's Hollywood executives all act like wimps," [DeVany] says. "They don't control their budgets. They give the actors anything they want. They rely on the easy answers, so they try to mimic past successes and cave in to the preposterous demands of stars. My research shows you don't have to do that. It's just an easy way out, an illusion."

"[A] careful study reveals that no strategy the studios devise is going to give them any kind of advantage at all. So any studio executive getting paid more than the salary of a comparable executive at your local dairy is getting paid too much."

Larry Ribstein, who knows a thing or two about the movie business and the way in which it portrays business, comments on the article here.

Posted by Tom at 7:21 AM | Comments (0) |

May 7, 2006

A Texas Hill Country Legend

Rip-Torn-1.jpgDon't miss this Susan Dominus/NY Sunday Times profile of actor Rip Torn, who was born and raised in the Texas Hill Country and studied acting in the mid-1950's at the University of Texas under the noted Shakespearean professor B. Iden Payne.

Although Torn is better known these days for his character roles in such mainstream comedy films as Men in Black and Dodgeball, I maintain that his defining role was as the despicable country-western singing star, Maury Dann, in the 1972 cult classic, Payday. In that film -- which is not carried by Netflix and is somewhat difficult to find -- Torn's character plumbs the depths of human depravity while being indulged every step of the way by the people who are dependent on him for their livelihood. Marlon Brando won the Academy Award that year for his memorable performance as Don Corleone in The Godfather, but in my view, Torn's performance as Maury Dann in Payday was even better.

Posted by Tom at 6:48 AM | Comments (0) |

March 31, 2006

Randy Quaid's Brokeback lawsuit

quaidback.jpgFormer Houstonian Randy Quaid, the fine character actor who is a product of Sidney Berger's outstanding theatre department at the University of Houston, is making news these days in the courtroom -- he is suing the producers of the recent hit movie Brokeback Mountain for $10 million in damages for misleading him to contribute his talent to the film in a supporting role. Here is the Variety article on the lawsuit.

According to Variety, Quaid -- the grizzled ranch boss character in the movie who brought the tragic lovers Jack and Ennis together -- alleges that the Brokeback producers misled him into thinking that the movie was just an "art" film with little chance of generating any profits:

Defendants were engaging in a 'movie laundering' scheme designed to obtain the services of talent such as Randy Quaid on economically unfavorable art film terms for a picture that, in reality, had studio backing and would be exploited using traditional studio marketing and distribution techniques," the lawsuit states. [...]

Quaid is asking to be awarded $10 million, the amount the lawsuit suggests he would have received had Focus been upfront about its intentions for "Brokeback," which has grossed nearly $160 million worldwide.

"Randy Quaid is an instantly recognizable household name and much-admired actor on the world's stage with a worldwide box office total of nearly $2 billion. His likeness, talent and name are worth millions of dollars and are solely his property," the lawsuit states. [...]

According to the suit, Lee told Quaid during a meeting that "we can't pay anything, we have very little money, everyone is making a sacrifice to make this film.

Meanwhile, the NY Times article reports that Quaid's lawsuit is focusing unwanted attention in certain Hollywood circles on how talent is being paid for working in features produced by the so-called "mini-majors" -- the arthouse divisions of huge studios that claims that low-budget films wouldn't be made without casts and crews drastically cutting their fees. Now, prominent actors such as Quaid are contending that they are being hoodwinked only to have the studios spend huge amounts on marketing in order to generate huge returns:

"It's a complicated question, and it is both the genius and the nefarious nature of these mini-majors," said Linda Lichter, a lawyer who sells films in the independent world. "The purpose of those mini-majors is to try to make movies that the major studios can't afford to make, for less money. But they don't make those movies unless they get big players who are willing to cut their price." [...]

"Good Night, and Good Luck," from Warner Independent, cost a mere $8 million to produce, with the actors earning the lowest permissible union fee, known as scale, an executive involved in the film said. Warner Brothers spent about $25 million to promote the film for the Oscars and in its general release, so while the movie took in $51 million around the world, there will be no profit to share in, the executive said. (Distributors share box office revenue with theater owners.)

Gee, imagine that. Who would have thought that Hollywood -- which regularly misrepresents and bashes business in films -- regularly misrepresents its business to others within its own industry? ;^)

Posted by Tom at 5:31 AM | Comments (3) |

January 13, 2006

The sociological importance of hoops

gloryroad3.jpgThe new movie Glory Road -- the story about the 1966 National Championship Texas Western University basketball team -- opens this weekend, and the story of that great team reminded me of my late father's use of basketball to teach me one of my life's most valuable lessons.

In 1966, I was a 13 year-old basketball-consumed youngster in the somewhat sheltered existence of Iowa City, Iowa, a lovely midwestern college town where the University of Iowa is located. That season, the NCAA Basketball Tournament's Mideast Regional was in Iowa City and my father graciously decided to let me tag along with him to the tournament games. Little did I know that part of my father's purpose in doing so was to expose me to one of the most intimidating examples of racism that I would experience during my youth.

The four teams playing in the Mideast regional that year were Michigan (the Big 10 champ and one of the Iowa Hawkeyes' arch-rivals), Kentucky, Dayton and Western Kentucky. My father was a native of Louisville, Kentucky, so he had always followed UK basketball, although he was partial to his alma mater Louisville and to Iowa after watching Big 10 sporting events for many years while teaching medicine at the University of Iowa College of Medicine. As a big basketball fan, I knew all about Kentucky basketball and its legendary coach Adolph Rupp, but that did little to prepare me for the sociological experience that was about to take place in the old Iowa Fieldhouse over that weekend in 1966.

You see, each of the teams in that regional except Kentucky was integrated, and it became clear from the moment I set foot in the hot, dusty arena that the antipathy of racism was about ready to boil over at almost any point. As Kentucky defeated Dayton and Michigan beat Western Kentucky in the semi-final games, many of the numerous Kentucky fans openly hurled insults at the black players for the other teams. Moreover, most of the Kentucky fans refused to cheer for the neighboring Western Kentucky team in its semi-final game against Michigan because of the presence of black players on the Western Kentucky squad. Rupp -- who was a daunting and imposing figure on the sideline -- didn't even attempt to hide his contempt for the black players of opposing teams. Inasmuch as the Iowa baskeball teams that I had followed had already been integrated with black players, I had never experienced anything close to the seething impulses of racism that were palpable in the Iowa Fieldhouse that Friday evening.

Throughout that entire evening and the following Saturday, my father never mentioned anything to me about the acrimonious atmosphere in the Fieldhouse. However, as Michigan -- with its star black players Cazzie Russell and Oliver Darden -- took on the all-white Kentucky team in the Mideast Regional final game on Saturday night, there was no doubt that my father and I were pulling for Michigan to pull the upset over Kentucky. Alas, Michigan lost a close game to UK in that regional final, which set up Kentucky's journey to the Final Four that season and its eventual loss to that special Texas Western team in the National Championship game. My father and I took great pleasure the night of that championship game in seeing the mighty Rupp and his UK team brought to their knees by an unknown underdog from far West Texas, and I have felt an affinity for that Texas Western team ever since.

While golfing together many years later, I asked my father why he had said nothing to me about the open expressions of racism that we saw and heard during that weekend of basketball in 1966. He looked at me and -- fully cognizant of my youthful disdain for Michigan -- replied with a wry smile:

"There was nothing to say. When I saw that you were pulling for Michigan, I knew you had figured it out."

Posted by Tom at 6:35 AM | Comments (8) |

December 16, 2005

Well, "Lonesome Dove" was kind of a love story between two cowboys, too

brokeback.jpgYou've probably heard by now about Brokeback Mountain, the new movie based on the Annie Proulx book about how a secret homosexual relationship between two cowboys plays out over the years. Inasmuch as Larry McMurtry -- author of the incomparable Lonesome Dove novel and later mini-series -- helped write the screenplay for Brokeback, that fact and the generally strong initial reviews are good enough to prompt me to include the film in my holiday movie-going.

But even if Brokeback does not sound like your cup of tea, don't miss this clever review of the film by a gay man trying to reassure heterosexual males about the film's merit, which leads me to believe that this recent overheard conversation is taking place in many other places around the country in addition to New York City.

Posted by Tom at 8:20 AM | Comments (2) |

August 16, 2005

Ebert's most-hated films

Ebert.jpgMovie critic Roger Ebert has posted this "most-hated movies" column on his website, and it's an entertaining read. Inasmuch as I have been spared the chore of watching most of the films noted, it's hard to argue with his choices. However, even though it has been overrated generally, isn't it a bit harsh to include The Usual Suspects on this list?

Posted by Tom at 6:32 AM | Comments (2) |

June 27, 2005

Lord of the Lawsuit

jackson.jpgEverything is not so comfortable these days in the Shire.

Peter Jackson, Oscar-winning director of the "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy, is suing Time Warner subsidiary New Line Cinema, the company that financed and distributed the three movies, for at least $100 million in connection New Line Cinema's handling of revenues from the "Fellowship of the Ring" movie in the trilogy.

In essence, Mr. Jackson is claiming in the lawsuit that New Line did not offer the subsidiary rights to such things as "Lord of the Rings" books, DVD's and merchandise to the open market and, thus, sold them to affiliated companies for far less than fair market value. And in typical Hollywood style, the gloves are already off in the litigation, as the following quote about the portly Mr. Jackson from one of New Line's lawyers reflects:

A litigator for New Line, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is working on this lawsuit, said the money paid to Mr. Jackson so far is in line with the contract he signed.

"Peter Jackson is an incredible filmmaker who did the impossible on 'Lord of the Rings,' " this lawyer said. "But there's a certain piggishness involved here. New Line already gave him enough money to rebuild Baghdad, but it's still not enough for him."

Mr. Jackson has received about $200 million to date from the Rings trilogy, which was produced for about $285 million and has produced over $4 billion in retail sales from worldwide film exhibition, home video, soundtracks, merchandise and television showings. New Line has made over $1 billion in net profits from the trilogy.

Posted by Tom at 5:38 AM | Comments (0) |

June 25, 2005

Throwing popcorn at Enron

logo_dynegy.gifThis NY Times article interviews Bruce A. Williamson, the former Duke Energy executive who the Dynegy, Inc. board brought in to restructure (some would say liquidate) the company following the economic fallout in the energy trading industry resulting from the company's failed bid for Enron and Enron's bankruptcy in late 2001. Previous posts are here and here regarding Dynegy's settlement of claims at least indirectly related to its Enron bid.

The entire interview is mildly interesting and certainly further evidence for the widespread rumors in the business community that Dynegy is for sale. However, Mr. Williamson's observation about life after Enron is priceless:

Q. Yes. What's the mood like [in Houston after Enron]?

A. If you're in the oil upstream exploration and production, there's a lot of money coming in. The biggest concern the upstream companies have is where to go from there. What do they do with the money? They're running out of places they want to go to explore.

The power merchants, and that includes ourselves and Reliant, El Paso, Calpine, Duke, are all recovering and have all been inwardly focused for the past two and a half years. I think broadly in the community in Houston, it goes in waves. Enron sort of dies down and then something rears its head up and washes it back in the news.

The Enron movie came out at the River Oaks Theater, literally a few blocks from where Ken Lay lives, and that was quite an event. One person - a board member that I will keep nameless - told me he hadn't been to a movie like this since he was 12 and went to see "Hopalong Cassidy." Someone would come on the screen and people would boo and hiss and throw popcorn.

Posted by Tom at 12:08 PM | Comments (1) |

June 7, 2005

Stealing the show in "Cinderella Man"

Giamatti2.jpgLast night, my boys and I attended Cinderella Man, the Ron Howard-produced movie about Depression-era fighter and folk hero Jim Braddock (played by Russell Crowe), the unlikely underdog who defeated heavyweight champ Max Baer in a 15-round free-for-all in 1935.

Although flawed in several respects, the movie is highly entertaining. Leads Crowe and Renee Zellweger are superb, and the staging of the fight scenes is flat-out remarkable, even making Scorsese's fine depiction of the fights in Raging Bull seem pedestrian in comparison.

However, the movie is worth attending alone to see the performance of Paul Giamatti, who steals the show in playing Joe Gould, Braddock's manager and friend. In hilarious and believable fashion, Giamatti uses the phrase "sonuvabitch" throughout the movie to express a remarkably wide range of reactions and emotions. His performance is one of the most nuanced and intelligent that I have seen in years, and reflects an actor who is clearly at the top of his profession right now. Don't miss it.

Posted by Tom at 7:52 AM | Comments (2) |

May 17, 2005

Early review of "The Return of the Sith"

yoda.jpgDon't count The New Yorker movie reviewer Anthony Lane as one of the admirers of the latest and (hopefully) last installment of George Lucas' lucrative sci-fi bonanza, Star Wars: Episode III?Revenge of the Sith. The following are a few gems from his review of the movie that appears in the latest issue of the magazine:

"The general opinion of ?Revenge of the Sith? seems to be that it marks a distinct improvement on the last two episodes, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. True, but only in the same way that dying from natural causes is preferable to crucifixion."

"So much here is guaranteed to cause either offense or pain, starting with the nineteen-twenties leather football helmet that Natalie Portman suddenly dons for no reason, and rising to the continual horror of Ewan McGregor?s accent."

"[T]he one who gets me is Yoda. May I take the opportunity to enter a brief plea in favor of his extermination? Any educated moviegoer would know what to do, having watched that helpful sequence in Gremlins when a small, sage-colored beastie is fed into an electric blender. A fittingly frantic end, I feel, for the faux-pensive stillness on which the Yoda legend has hung. At one point in the new film, he assumes the role of cosmic shrink?squatting opposite Anakin in a noirish room, where the light bleeds sideways through slatted blinds. Anakin keeps having problems with his dark side, in the way that you or I might suffer from tennis elbow, . ."

"The prize for the least speakable burst of dialogue has, over half a dozen helpings of ?Star Wars,? grown into a fiercely contested tradition, but for once the winning entry is clear, shared between Anakin and Padmé for their exchange of endearments at home:

You?re so beautiful.?
?That?s only because I?m so in love.?
?No, it?s because I?m so in love with you.?

For a moment, it looks as if they might bat this one back and forth forever, like a baseline rally on a clay court."

Ole'! Enjoy the entire review.

Posted by Tom at 7:20 AM | Comments (0) |

May 13, 2005

Morgenstern on the state of Hollywood filmmaking

Joe morgenstern.jpgJoe Morgenstern is the film critic of The Wall Street Journal, where he writes the Friday "Review/Film" column in the Weekend Journal and supervises the Leisure & Arts page's coverage of the business of Hollywood. Mr. Morgenstern won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism "for his reviews that elucidated the strengths and weaknesses of film with rare insight, authority and wit."

A good example of that insight appears in Mr. Morgenstern's column in today's WSJ ($), in which he pans the new Jennifer Lopez-Jane Fonda movie, Monster-in-Law, and observes the following about the current trend in Hollywood filmmaking:

Films like this -- as well as two other clumsy features opening today -- are emblematic of Hollywood's relentless dumbing-down and defining-down of big-screen attractions. There's an audience for such stuff, but little enthusiasm or loyalty. Adult moviegoers are being ignored almost completely during all but the last two or three months of each year, while even the kids who march off to the multiplexes each weekend know they're getting moldy servings of same-old, rather than entertainments that feed their appetite for surprise and delight. "Life's too short to live the same day twice," Charlie says in "Monster-In-Law," quoting her father. It's also too short to keep living the same weekend, though that's what the movie going experience is starting to feel like -- an extended Groundhog Day of amateur nights.

Posted by Tom at 5:47 AM | Comments (0) |

April 28, 2005

Spork flicks

feverpitch.jpgRecently, my wife pulled me to the new Farrelly Brothers' (Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin and There's Something About Mary) movie, Fever Pitch, which billed itself as a chick flick disguised as a sports movie. Or, as ESPN's Bill Simmons explains in this absolutely hilarious article on the movie, a "Spork Flick."

Mr. Simmons recently attended Fever Pitch with his father because the film was billed as a funny spork flick, but he realized after enduring the movie that it was really just a straightforward chick flick:

Here's the plot for "Fever Pitch" in one sentence: Guy loves the Red Sox, meets Drew Barrymore, tries to love them both, nearly loses her because of the Sox, decides to give up his season tickets next to the Red Sox dugout because he loves her, she stops him just in time, and they get back together and end up making out on the field after the first Red Sox championship in 86 years. The end.

Mr. Simmons goes on compare the movie with other chick flicks (don't miss his analysis of My Best Friend's Wedding), and then reveals that the key to success of a chick flick is hitting on the top ten generic themes of chick flicks, a couple of which are the following:

4. If you're dating someone who is passionate about something, he will absolutely give that up for you because all men change once they fall in love. Especially if you have a nice apartment.

5. You can have only three friends: A smart friend who's pretty in a quirky way, a calculating beauty who's morally corrupt and an overweight girl who doesn't say much. You can only hang out with these people all at once. If there's anyone in your life who doesn't fit one of those three categories, get rid of them.

Trust me on this one -- read the entire article. Hat tip to Craig Newmark for the link.

Posted by Tom at 6:47 AM | Comments (0) |

February 24, 2005

The real economics of Hollywood

This Jonathon V. Last-Daily Standard article reviews Edward Jay Epstein's new book, The Big Picture (Random House 2005), which examines the fascinating and ever-changing economics of moviemaking. To give you an idea of what's going on in Hollywood economics, consider this:

In 1947, Hollywood sold 4.7 billion movie tickets. The studios were hugely profitable movie factories.

Times have changed. . . Television came to compete with the movies, as did home video. And despite a population boom, movie-going fell out of favor. In 2003, only 1.57 billion tickets were sold, a third the number 56 years earlier, while the real cost of making movies increased some 1,600 percent.

It wasn't just production costs that exploded. Today the average movie costs $4.2 million to distribute and nearly $35 million just to advertise. (The comparable 1947 figures, adjusted for inflation, were $550,000 and $300,000.) Such peripheral costs, Epstein explains, have grown so large that "even if the studios had somehow managed to obtain all their movies for free, they would still have lost money on their American releases."

How did Hollywood respond? Epstein observes that Hollywood transformed itself from a factory for making movies into a clearinghouse for intellectual property, which is at least as profitable as making movies used to be. The result?

The truth is that, even with terrible movies, the studios have to try hard not to make money. In this way, today's Hollywood is very much like the studio system of old. The two business models are so favorable that the quality of the product is beside the point. The difference, of course, is that the movies from the studio era were often quite good.

Read the entire review. Hat tip to EconoLog for the link to this review.

Posted by Tom at 6:30 AM | Comments (1) |

February 12, 2005

The same old Enron story

Following on this earlier post regarding the new Enron documentary Smartest Guys in the Room, the Houston Press' Joe Leydon is breathless in praising the documentary:

Please don't misunderstand: Alex Gibney has no great beef with capitalism. Indeed, many of his best friends back in Summit, New Jersey, are investment bankers. But when Gibney looks at the prodigious rise and precipitous fall of Enron in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the remarkable documentary that premiered January 22 at the Sundance Film Festival, the award-winning filmmaker sees the collateral damage of an economic system dangerously out of whack. And when he looks at Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, the former Enron executives now charged with perpetrating egregious fraud and deception during their stewardship of the now-bankrupt company, Gibney sees the lead players in a worst-case scenario that eventually could undermine capitalism itself.

My goodness. I haven't seen the Enron documentary yet, so I will reserve comment on it until I do. However, it is staggering that presumably bright people such as Mr. Leydon write such drivel in a film review without even seeking so much as a comment from an objective business or legal commentator regarding the film's portrayal of Enron. I mean, how many "Sherron Watkins good/Enron bad" stories are we going to have to endure before the mainstream media ("MSM") or moviemakers move on to some of the really important issues raised by the Enron saga? At this point, does anyone even recall that Ms. Watkins' famous memo to Ken Lay essentially depicted Enron's now infamous accounting problems related to Andrew Fastow's off-balance sheet partnerships as a manageable public relations problem?

To understand this phenomena, it is helpful to take some time and review Professor Ribstein's recent post and his interesting law review article -- Wall Street and Vine: Hollywood's View of Business -- on how business is portrayed in film. Here is the abstract and the conclusion of Professor Ribstein's article:

American films have long presented a negative view of business. This article is the first comprehensive and in-depth analysis of filmmakers' attitude toward business. It shows that it is not business that filmmakers dislike, but rather the control of firms by profit-maximizing capitalists. The article argues that this dislike stems from filmmakers' resentment of capitalists' constraints on their artistic vision. Filmmakers' portrayal of business is significant because films have persuasive power that tips the political balance toward business regulation.

Generations of filmgoers have sat in darkened theatres regaled by larger-than-life images of the evils of capital. This consistent message is not mere happenstance. Films are made by people who work for and have particular attitudes about business firms. Moreover, the fantasy about business that audiences see presented in films has real world political effects in government regulation of business. The trial lawyer as hero becomes the trial lawyer as vice-presidential candidate. Filmmakers? attitude toward business may change as the medium evolves. In the meantime, the best way to counteract films? misleading message about business is to let business speak for itself.

So, while moviemakers and the MSM continue to trot out stories on the Enron morality play, they ignore the harder but more compelling stories -- the sad case of Jamie Olis, the federal government blithely depriving thousands of innocent people jobs by pursuing a questionable prosecution of Arthur Andersen, the "Justice" Department sledgehammering businesspeople into pleading guilty to dubious criminal charges out of fear of receiving of what amounts to a life sentence if they risk asserting their Constitutional right to a trial, how Enron's corporate governance system contributed to the company's collapse. The list of fascinating issues goes on and on.

As Professor Ribstein notes, depth does not sell well in Hollywood, at least in regard to portrayal of business in films. But maybe, just maybe, a Pulitizer Prize is waiting for an enterprising reporter who is willing to go beyond the simple story of Enron and examine the complex issues that are really at the core of the fascinating Enron tale.

Posted by Tom at 7:10 AM | Comments (0) |

January 26, 2005

Second Circuit reverses "Super Size Me" lawsuit dismissal

Super Size Me is the Morgan Spurlock documentary that chronicled Spurlock's health as he as he ate nothing but McDonald's food at least three times a day for a month. Although certainly not a balanced treatment of the fast food industry, Super Size Me is quite clever and certainly worth watching. Last week, the film was nominated for an Academy Award in the best Documentary Feature category.

One of the criticisms of Super Size Me was that it was a transparent attempt to promote frivolous lawsuits against the fast food industry, although the onslaught of such litigation has not occurred. Nevertheless, such lawsuits received a glimmer of light yesterday from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. In this decision, the Second Circuit reinstated part of a highly publicized lawsuit that accused McDonald's of misleading young consumers about the healthiness of its products.

The Second Circuit's decision concluded that the trial judge in the case incorrectly dismissed parts of the lawsuit brought on behalf of two New York children on the grounds that the lawsuit complaint failed to link the children's alleged health problems directly to McDonald's products. For the trial court to dismiss the case on those grounds without a trial, the Second Circuit essentially held that such a ruling could only come in summary judgment proceedings after discovery and presentation of summary judgment evidence. Thus, the decision at least opens the door a crack for the plaintiffs' lawyers to demand in discovery from McDonald's the type of previously secret documents regarding the company's promotion of unhealthy products that ultimately led to a string of multi-billion dollar verdicts against Big Tobacco companies.

John F. Banzhaf III, a George Washington University professor of public-interest law who has advised plaintiffs in the big tobacco cases, is an unpaid adviser to the McDonald's plaintiffs in this case.

Despite McDonald's protestations to the contrary, Super Size Me has already had an effect the way in which McDonald's promotes its menu. In early 2004, McDonald's removed the "super size" option from the menus of its 13,000 U.S. restaurants and it began promoting a new line of premium salads. The company also began promoting milk as an alternative to soft drinks and sliced apples as a substitute for French fries in its famous Happy Meals for children.

I suspect that those apples have not competed particularly well against McDonald's French fries. ;^)

Posted by Tom at 4:18 AM | Comments (0) |

January 19, 2005

Enron, the documentary

As noted several times on this blog, the most popular book on the Enron affair to date has been the one written by Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron (Portfolio 2003). If you want to read just one book on the Enron scandal, then Smartest Guys is the book for you.

Now, the Houston Chronicle reports that Smartest Guys is the basis of a documentary that will debut later this month at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. Filmed by Alex Gibney, who is probably best known for producing the documentary -- The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002) -- based on Christopher Hitchens' searing book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (Verso 2001), it does not appear from the following Sundance website description of the film that Mr. Gibney bothered to review any of Professor Ribstein's writings on the portrayal of business in film in preparing the documentary:

Watching Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a little like watching the outcome of a Super Bowl on ESPN Classic. Although you already know the final score, you're still captivated by the drama of the game, entertained by the characters, and fascinated by the behind-the-scenes revelations. And Enron is indeed an engrossingly dramatic tale, especially as depicted in all of its exquisite detail by director/screenwriter Alex Gibney. The story of Enron is not simply a cautionary tale about greed and corruption. Nor is it a story that we are unlikely to witness again, for the rise and fall of Enron is as American as apple pie.

With this film, based on the book of the same title, Gibney has fashioned a history lesson that takes us "inside" the headquarters of the seventh-largest corporation in the United States and illustrates through a series of rapidly paced interviews, corporate footage, and news reports, the "new economy" of the 1990s: a climate where companies sold ideas rather than widgets, and a corporate culture where ethics became as old fashioned and out of date as value investing. Densely packed, with a world of information for the sophisticate and neophyte alike, Enron is riveting, muckraking filmmaking that should make any culture critic of the 1990s proud.

Hat tip to Charles Kuffner for the link to the Chronicle article.

Posted by Tom at 9:14 AM | Comments (0) |

December 15, 2004

"Million Dollar Baby"

Clint Eastwood's new movie is getting rave reviews. Here is the NY Times review and Roger Ebert's is here.

Posted by Tom at 5:08 AM | Comments (0) |

November 27, 2004

"Alexander the Turkey"

My younger son, who is a serious film buff, went to see Oliver Stone's Alexander the Great yesterday. He passes along that it is an unmitigated disaster, and predicts that it will be out of the theaters in less than a month, a prediction that is supported by the woeful early financial performance of the $210 million film (there were few people in the audience of the showing that he attended). The Washington Post's Stephen Hunter agrees in this hilarious review, and passes along this gem on the performance of Angelina Jolie as Alexander's mother, Olympias:

Then there's Angelina Jolie as Mom. Really, words fail me here. But let's try: Give this young woman the hands-down award for best impression of Bela Lugosi while hampered by a 38-inch bust line. Though everyone else in the picture speaks in some variation of a British accent, poor Jolie has been given the Transylvanian throat-sucker's throaty, sibilant vowels, as well as a wardrobe of snakes. She represents the spirit of kitsch that fills the movie, and with all her crazed posturing and slinking, it's more of a silent movie performance than one from the sound era. Theda Bara, call your agent.

The blogosphere's foremost film critic -- Professor Ribstein -- passes along his thoughts in this post. And even Victor Davis Hanson chimes in with this review, in which he concludes:

There is also irony here. If we remember the embarrassing Troy, we are beginning to see, that all for all the protestations of artistic excellence and craftsmanship, Hollywood has become mostly a place of mediocrity, talentless actors and writers who spout off about politics in lieu of having any real accomplishment in their own field. I?ve heard so many inane things mouthed by Stone that I would like someone at last to address this question?why would supposedly smart insiders turn over $160 million to someone of such meager talent to make such an embarrassing film? Alexander the Great is third-rate Cecil B. Demille in drag.

Posted by Tom at 9:06 AM | Comments (0) |

August 19, 2004

California's worst nightmare

Check out Tyler Cowen's mini-review of an independent Mexican film that sounds both interesting and hilarious.

Posted by Tom at 8:33 AM | Comments (0) |

April 9, 2004

Initial Reviews of "The Alamo"

The new Disney movie "The Alamo" opens this weekend, and the initial reviews are reasonably good.

Ebert likes it.

Bruce Westbrook in the Chronicle wants to like it, but does not want to be accused of being parochial if he admits it.

Joel Morgenstern in the WSJ ($) generally does not like it.

The NY Times review cannot bring itself to like it.

If you are interested in the background to the Battle of the Alamo, I recommend "Texian Iliad," a 1996 masterpiece on the Texas Revolution written by Stephen L. Hardin, a professor of history at Victoria College in southeast Texas.

Posted by Tom at 12:00 PM | Comments (0) |

February 25, 2004

More on "The Passion"

Following on yesterday's post about Mel Gibson's new movie, "The Passion," neither the Chronicle nor the NY Times reviewers were particularly impressed from a filmmaking standpoint. From the Chronicle review:

It's a stylish and visually polished re-creation of the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus -- unrelieved suffering and martyrdom, in other words. Controversy over whether it will inflame anti-Semitism guarantees huge audiences, and many people may be profoundly moved. But as a film it is quite bad.

It isn't awful merely because of Gibson's obsessive need to zoom in and linger on bloodletting, although this makes it difficult to watch. It's awful because everything he knows about storytelling has been swept aside by proselytizing zeal. Without doubt, this is a heartfelt expression of religious faith, but it is so naked an expression -- untempered by detached, mediating intelligence -- that it speaks solely to the converted.

And the NY Times review adds:

"The Passion of the Christ" is so relentlessly focused on the savagery of Jesus' final hours that this film seems to arise less from love than from wrath, and to succeed more in assaulting the spirit than in uplifting it. Mr. Gibson has constructed an unnerving and painful spectacle that is also, in the end, a depressing one. It is disheartening to see a film made with evident and abundant religious conviction that is at the same time so utterly lacking in grace.

But Kenneth L. Woodward observes in this NY Times op-ed that the public's interest in the movie is due largely to the sanitized versions of Christianity that are so prevalant in America today:

Mr. Gibson's raw images invade our religious comfort zone, which has long since been cleansed of the Gospels' harsher edges. Most Americans worship in churches where the bloodied body of Jesus is absent from sanctuary crosses or else styled in ways so abstract that there is no hint of suffering. In sermons, too, the emphasis all too often is on the smoothly therapeutic: what Jesus can do for me.

More than 60 years ago, H. Richard Neibuhr summarized the creed of an easygoing American Christianity that has in our time triumphantly come to pass: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment though the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." Despite its muscular excess, Mr. Gibson's symbol-laden film is a welcome repudiation of all that.

Indeed, Mr. Gibson's film leaves out most of the elements of the Jesus story that contemporary Christianity now emphasizes. His Jesus does not demand a "born again" experience, as most evangelists do, in order to gain salvation. He does not heal the sick or exorcise demons, as Pentecostals emphasize. He doesn't promote social causes, as liberal denominations do. He certainly doesn't crusade against gender discrimination, as some feminists believe he did, nor does he teach that we all possess an inner divinity, as today's nouveau Gnostics believe. One cannot imagine this Jesus joining a New Age sunrise Easter service overlooking the Pacific.

Like Jeremiah, Jesus is a Jewish prophet rejected by the leaders of his own people, and abandoned by his handpicked disciples. Besides taking an awful beating, he is cruelly tempted to despair by a Satan whom millions of church-going Christians no longer believe in, and dies in obedience to a heavenly Father who, by today's standards, would stand convicted of child abuse. In short, this Jesus carries a cross that not many Christians are ready to share.

The religious website beliefnet has been sponsoring an online debate over The Passion and the theological issues it raises. The participants are two scholars representing diverse theological and academic perspectives. John Dominic Crossan is a well-known liberal New Testament scholar whose approach to Jesus is creative, but rather bizarre and skeptical. Ben Witherington III is an outstanding academic from Asbury Theological Seminary who advocates orthodox Christian theology. These two scholars are publishing a measured dialogue that is must reading for people who want to wrestle with the serious issues raised by The Passion of the Christ.

Posted by Tom at 6:43 AM | Comments (0) |

February 24, 2004

An Orthodox Jew's perspective on "The Passion"

Moe Freedman, an Orthodox Jew who hosts the insightful Occam's Toothbrush blog, has the following interesting perspective on Mel Gibson's new movie, "The Passion":

The Bleeding of the Christ

I went to see "The Passion" tonight, and I would like point out a few things to those of you considering seeing it.

First, on an entertainment level, it isn't much of a movie in the traditional sense, so if you're looking for entertainment skip it, this movie is downright painful for anyone not looking for an affirmation of their faith.

Second, on all the Anti-Semitism charges, the really shouldn't be that much controversy - the movie is anti-Semitic only inasmuch as the gospels are. Don't get me wrong, Jews come off quite badly, and are the primary causes of Jesus' death in the film, but that's pretty much the way the gospels went the last time I read them, so you can't exactly blame Gibson for that. I do think the Movie will cause some Anti-Semitism (especially in parts of the world prone to it) but again, you can't blame Gibson for that either.

When it comes to depicting the Jews, the movie mixes up the Sanhedrin, the Kohanim, and the Pharisees in general, into an all purpose villainous group. but it wasn't all that horrible on that front.

Cinematically it was quite good, and the actors were terrific, though some of them seemed to have problems with the cadence of their Aramaic and Hebrew (I'm nitpicking here). James Caviezel was great as the suffering Jesus, but I thought he was a little stiff during the flashback scenes.

The problem for me though, is that I'm not a Christian (I'm an Orthodox Jew BTW), and so I didn't really have any emotional involvement other than simple curiosity, and that makes the film just about worthless. The violence didn't "move" me, it just seemed like a ridiculous amount of overkill. They should have called this "The Bleeding of the Christ," most of the movie is just that, Jesus bleeding. Charge me with deicide if you will, but after about 2/3's of the movie I was begging for the guy to die already so we could all go home.

To sum up, if you're a Christian and want your faith bolstered, tweaked or whatever this is supposed to do, go see it. It certainly seems to work (the two girls sitting next to me were sobbing), But if you aren't, stay home and I'll sum it up for you?Bleeding, lots of it.

Although I am a Christian, I share the concerns of many Jewish leaders regarding the potential anti-Semitic impact of the film. James Carroll's book "Constantine's Sword" is flawed in several respects, but its thorough analysis of the troubling history of Christian persecution of the Jews is daunting and thought provoking. Viewed in that broad context, Jewish concerns regarding potential anti-Semitic reaction to Mr. Gibson's movie are entirely reasonable. Christians accept that all of mankind is responsible for Christ's death, and Jews certainly should bear no greater responsibility for his death than anyone else. What is more important to me is God's forgiveness of my complicity in that sin, for which I am eternally grateful.

Posted by Tom at 10:47 AM | Comments (0) |

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