Category Archives: review


Strange. I saw Crazy Heart back in March, in the theater, just before the Oscars, and was going to write about it then, but couldn’t find the right angle. Then I figured that the next movie I saw would motivate me to finally write about it, but I haven’t SEEN a film since then, aside from a partial one. Now it’s three months later, the movie’s available on video. I was going to say at the time that it was a good rental rather than necessary to see in the cinema, but now I’ve waited so long, that’s about the only way you’re likely to see it.

As you probably know, Jeff Bridges won the Best Actor Oscar for playing rundown country singer Bad Blake, an alcoholic on the downward slope of his career, forced to play small venues such as bowling alleys. He manages to hook up with his female fans as he travels from town to town. His former protege, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), makes it known through Bad’s manager that he wants buy some of Bad’s songs, but Bad’s hidden pain blocks his creativity. Meanwhile, a roving reporter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) falls for him.

The familiar hellholes Bad plays in is reminiscent of the familiar, easygoing and peaceful characters Bridges has played in the past. It’s a good role, and he plays it well, but it is not groundbreaking cinema, and the award, I suspect, is as much a reward for lifetime achievement as for this particular performance.

It’s not that I didn’t like Crazy Heart – I did – but it had a certain “I’ve seen this before” feel. And I didn’t quite buy the hookup between Bad and the reporter, though, oddly, I did believe the relationship subsequently.

Oh, for Christmas 2009, I got the soundtrack for this movie, which is quite good. But it’s better once you see the movie and understand the context. Both Bridges and Farrell do their own singing, and they’re quite competent.

MOVIE Demi-REVIEW: Despicable Me

I get a phone call Friday night asking whether I wanted some tickets to see a sneak preview of the movie Despicable Me the next morning at 10. I must admit I have zero idea what that film was. But, since The Princess and the Frog disaster, I figured a movie with that title would be a no go for the Daughter, and declined. For some reason, I told her about it and she said she wanted to go. I looked up the word “despicable” in the dictionary, but since the defition was unuseful (“worthy of being despised”), I didn’t belabor trying to explain it any further.

So Saturday morning, we took the bus to Crossgates Mall. I must note that I almost never go there, in no small part because the place is just too damn big for my taste. Astonishly, we actually found the theater, screen 4 of 18, and took our sdeats behind a young man of about 10. Unlike most of us, he was wearing TWO pair of 3D glasses. Eventually, his mother returned from wherever, and he gave her a pair.

The story is about Gru (voiced with some vague Eastern European accent by Steve Carrell), a mean supervillain type who has competition in the criminal world by Vector (Jason Segal), though adored by his minions. Continue reading MOVIE Demi-REVIEW: Despicable Me

VIDEO REVIEW: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Here’s an interesting experiment; go with your spouse and child to an elementary school gym, along with four dozen other elementary school kids and their parents to see a 2-D version of a 3-D movie based on a 30-page book. That’s what we did a couple Friday nights ago as we viewed Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

I had no preconceived notions about this film. I hadn’t read the book, first published in 1978, written by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett. In fact I never even heard of it until the film was being promoted.

This iteration tells the story of Flint Lockwood, science nerd, whose mother (Lauren Graham) believes he’ll be someone special; she dies early on, and his monosyllabic, unibrow fisherman-father (James Caan) believes in more practical efforts, wanting his son (Bill Hader) to work at the sardine store with him. Everyone on the island of Swallow Falls eats sardines.

Flint is tortured by an annoying character, Baby Brent (Andy Samburg), who was famous as the Gerber baby, and keeps milking his fame. (Independently, my wife and I thought he was very much like the character in the Back to the Future movies who kept harassing Marty McFly’s father.)

Flint, undeterred from his dream, manages to invent a machine that converts water into food. Needing to hide his creativity from the local policeman (Mr. T), he accidentally launches it into the atmosphere. Instead of rain, food of every sort starts falling from the sky. This phenomenon inspires a television station to send a weather reporter trainee (Anna Faris) to cover the phenomenon.

I laughed out loud several times in the first half of the movie at lines that probably went right over the heads of the purported target audience. At least once, I swear I was the ONLY person laughing.

At some point, the movie becomes some illustrated cross between the movies Twister (which I saw) and 2012 (which I did not). This part was less interesting to me, though not without its charms, and frightened the daughter some to boot.

Still, I enjoyed the intelligently-made film overall, and it reviewed well enough. Within the film of writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were none-too-subtle digs at the food industry (processed foods with no connection to the source, a la Fast Food Nation), gluttony (see also: the latter part of WALL-E), environmental destruction, and sexism in the entertainment industry.

I finally got around to reading the book this week, and while there were nods to the source material (food as rafts, yellow Jell-O, and of course a spaghetti storm), the movie is a whole ‘nother animal altogether. Friends of friends of mine who are devotees of the book often HATE the movie because it’s not the book; I think the movie should be appreciated on the merits of what’s on the screen, NOT based on how it is or is not true to the source material.
The movie trailer.


Theater Review: Spring Awakening

Lust. Domestic violence. Sex. Abortion. Questioning authority. Suicide. Rape. All of these are elements of the book Spring Awakening, written by German writer Frank Wedekind in the early ’90s. The 1890s. This may explain why the book was banned in Germany and in English-speaking countries for decades.

Most, though not all, of those same elements, plus a large dollop of indie-rock written by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik, appear in the 2007 Tony winner for Best Musical, Spring Awakening, playing at Proctors Theatre in Schenectady February 16-21.

The wife’s Valentine’s Day present for us was a pair of tickets to the opening night this past Tuesday. Really, all we knew of the show was what we saw on the Tonys, and that was almost three years ago.

So we got a babysitter and hoofed it over a few blocks to Central Avenue in Albany to catch the bus to Schenectady. We had gotten 5.3″ of snow that day, the most the city had received in 2010. For the record, CDTA got us there (and back) quite adequately, thank you.

Before the show begins, I am awed by the set. There is no curtain so it’s just there. You can see snippets of it in the Tony performance, but it hardly does it justice. Bleachers are both stage left (two rows) and stage right (three rows) and people are already sitting out there when the principles come onto the stage to sit with them. So the excellent, eclectic band is likewise on the stage from the beginning, everything from keyboards and drums to a cello? But it works.

As for the technical aspects of the performance, I was also wowed by the choreography. Not just dance per se, but how the players moved about the stage, passing off or getting microphones. The lighting was also first rate.

The fist three songs advanced the story quite well, high energy and great entertainment value. Yet the core action at the end of the first act, which involved a couple of the aforementioned elements felt, for want of a better word, stagy.

Somehow, the second act redeemed it for us, with the best song in show, the tune that got the biggest audience reaction, and the one that my dear wife says we all feel now and then, Totally F***ed (I’m serious here: NSFW or for sensitive ears, big time.)

If you see it, and you should, then it will help to know that two people play all the adult roles; in the production we saw, both actors appeared in various episodes of the Law & Order franchise, which is no surprise. Spring Awakening is ultimately “a cross-generational phenomenon that continues to transcend age and cultural barriers,” as the promos suggest, and I am thinking that a greater knowledge of the plot will help the novice theater goer appreciate it more.

Something I didn’t know until recently: Lea Michele, who plays the annoying but talented Rachel on the TV show Glee, was the lead in the Broadway production of Spring Awakening.

And now the musical will become a movie. Not sure just how that’ll play. I can’t really imagine it, but then I couldn’t fathom M*A*S*H being a weekly television series, either.

A review of the Wednesday’s performance suggested a small-than-expected crowd. We felt the same way about Tuesday’s performance, but I had attributed the smallish crowd to the weather. I theorize that, despite its awards, it’s pretty much an unknown commodity, relatively speaking; I mean, it’s not South Pacific.



When the South African rugby team, the Springboks, played in Albany, NY in September 1981, 1200 people braved the torrential weather to protest the apartheid regime that the green-and-gold represented; almost certainly the bad weather tamped down the number of protesters, as there were nearly as many law enforcement folks as picketers. The singer Pete Seeger was there and so was I.

If some Americans were opposed to the Springboks, the black South Africans loathed them, routinely rooting for the foreign opposition when the Springboks played. So when apartheid ended, and Nelson Mandela was released from prison 20 years ago this month, and subsequently became President of South Africa, there was reason to believe that the minority whites would be purged from their government positions and that the Springboks would be disbanded. But former prisoner 46664, who spent over a quarter century in a small prison cell, had a different strategy, one honed by observing his captors. Vengeance was anticipated; instead, he disarmed his former foes with compassion.

Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood, for the longest time feels like a “conventional movie”, maybe a little too deliberately paced, complete with the “big game”. It’s not until near the end that you internalize the awe-inspiring wisdom that was Mandela. I must argue with those who suggest that the final match was anti-climatic; it’s not the game itself that matters, it’s the people’s reaction to the game that counts. Oh, and while I learned far more about rugby than I thought possible, I’m still slightly mystified what constitutes an infraction worthy of a penalty kick.

The South African leader was played by Eastwood’s old friend, Morgan Freeman; he’s already played God, so this is a slight step down. Still I understand why he got his Best Actor nod. Matt Damon, as captain of the Springboks, was good, but I’m surprised by his Best Supporting actor nod. Actually, I was more taken by other characters in the piece.

Nowhere is religion specifically mentioned, to my recollection. Yet there is a powerful message of faith that one can draw from this movie, partially summarized in the 1875 poem for which the movie is named.

I saw this movie Saturday afternoon at the Spectrum in Albany in large part because it’s the last week it’s playing; I’m glad I did.



I saw the A Single Man a couple weeks ago, in one of those “split date” things my wife and I go on, where we see the same movie in the same weekend, then compare notes. It’s the story of George (Colin Firth), a British gay man and a professor in 1962 Los Angeles, who lost his life partner (Matthew Goode) and is just trying to get through the day. His public grieving is limited and his lover’s family don’t even allow him to the funeral. He’s friendly to the housewife neighbor (Ginnifer Goodwin of Big Love), but her husband is less than friendly. His only real friend is fellow British expat Charley (Julianne Moore), who has issues of her own. One of his colleagues (Lee Pace from Pushing Daisies) represents the Cold war backdrop of this movie.

I certainly understand why Firth was nominated for an Academy Award for his role. His character is quite in need of structure in his life. Even when George lets go a little, it’s honed with a certain British reserve. There’s a surprisingly darkly funny sequence near the end of the film.

Tom Ford is a rookie director, a fashion designer and former Gucci executive who also wrote the screenplay based on the Chris Isherwood novel. While he tells a succinct tale, occasionally he would engage in cinematic trickery that was at times more irritating than enlightening. Julianne Moore is fine in her role, but Ford made her look every one of her 47 years, and then some.

I read someone describe the film as somnambulant, and I do understand his point. This is not a Michael Bay movie. Not much happens in A Single Man, yet quite a bit does.

Recommended, unless you’re only a fan of action flicks, in which case this will undoubtedly bore you silly.
A few years ago, probably after seeing her in the 2002 movies Far from Heaven and the Hours, I had a dream about Julianne Moore. I almost never dream about real people I don’t know. Anyway, I saved her from some some peril – getting hit by a car, I believe. She was grateful, and we became pen pals, with her sending me autographed photos and tickets to her movies. [Alas, I woke up.)


MOVIE REVIEW: It's Complicated

I am fascinated how much certain people loathed this movie, sight unseen. Back on Christmas Day, Ken Levine (cited recently in this blog for his sagacity re: Up in The Air) listed several well-known bad movies he’d see before he’d see It’s Complicated, including HOWARD THE DUCK, CATWOMAN, and STAYING ALIVE. I’ve seen that same antipathy elsewhere. what is it about this Meryl Streep-Alec Baldwin rom-com that has engendered such vitriol without actually being viewed?

My wife for one was wary about seeing it because of the mixed reviews (57% positive on Rotten Tomatoes), but a couple weekends ago, we went to see it and enjoyed it. Now, I’m not saying it’s high art or that it’s not pretty lightweight; also, it was too long by about 15 minutes with one too many subplots. But our expectations were so dampened that it turned out to be more than a passable experience.

Streep and Baldwin had chemistry that made the fairly absurd scenario almost believable. The real surprise was John Krasinski as the fiance of one of the daughters of the Streep and Baldwin characters; he was not just another variation of Jim on the NBC sitcom The Office, which his characters in movies usually feel like. And the scene near the end with Baldwin, Streep and Steve Martin did make me laugh. Indeed, we chuckled throughout the movie,. though not constantly. There’s also a poignant scene earlier with Streep that I could definitely relate to.

There were some problems. One, not the movie’s fault but the trailer’s, is that Streep’s very best line in some dialogue with some friends appears in the trailer and so when actually delivered in the movie is not as funny as it might have been. Stoned adults are far less funny this century than last. The trophy wife of the Baldwin character (Lake Bell) seemed unnecessarily unsympathetic. And the three adult children of the Streep/Baldwin marriage were rather pathetic.

So, partly because I’ve had my own complicated relationships, I deem it one of your basic 2 1/2 out of 4 stars, B- movie. We both enjoyed it enough to recommend it, despite its flaws.


Ken Levine, Emmy winning writer/director/producer declared Up In The Air his pick for movie of the year. I saw few enough 2009 movies that I couldn’t say. I will posit, though, that the movie is the best 2009 movie I’ve seen thus far.

What I don’t know is what I can tell you that you don’t already know without revealing spoilers. I’m particularly cognizant of that, because when I saw it back on January 9, right after the opening of the new Delaware Avenue branch of the Albany Public Library, I went home and told my wife what I thought was an obscure piece of information. But the next day, after she went to see the film, she declared that my tiny mention helped her figure something out that I regret that she sussed out.

Surely, you know that the film stars George Clooney as a guy emotionally at arms length, who hates his 43 days a year at home, being much happier being a VIP on planes, car rental places and hotels. His job is to come into towns, fire people because the management of the companies are wussses, and move on. Vera Farmiga is his detached near-equal. Writer/director Jason Reitman had previously made Thank You for Smoking and Juno, both of which I enjoyed, and he has adapted the screenplay from Walter Kirn’s novel of the same name, which I did not read.

You may have read how real out-of-work people were filmed talking about their laid off experiences, not knowing initially that they were being recorded for a movie. It was quite an effective technique. However, J.K. Simmons, a character actor you’ll likely recognize as J. Jonah Jameson from the Spider-Man movies, Chief Pope from The Closer, or Juno’s dad, is also compelling.

I should mention that Vera Farmiga was featured in a story in the local paper because she lives in not-that-far-away Ulster County, NY.

A review wondered if a family event was necessary for the film, and decided in the end that it was. Whereas I thought that event was critical. (That was vague.)

Ultimately, I think two additional factors, other than the writing, directing and acting, really wowed me. One is that the current economic downturn made this movie just right for its time, much the way The China Syndrome, coming out just before Three Mile Island in 1979, made it very topical. The other thing, probably counter-intuitively, is that while George Clooney played a character named Ryan, he also was George Clooney, noted movie star. And some part of my brain wondered if Ryan would AND George will end up alone; somehow this made it even more interesting.

MOVIE REVIEW: Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Squeakquel

When i was about six years old, I remember that we owned the single The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late) by David Seville and the Chipmunks on Liberty Records; it had a greenish label. I loved that tune, and i could do a reasonable imitation of the holiday song.

Somewhere along the line, Alvin and his brothers became television stars in both the 1960s and 1980s. Still, I was mildly surprised that there was going to be a movie, starring Jason Lee, Earl of NBC’s now canceled My Name Is Earl. The 2007 movie was a big hit, grossing over $200 million in domestic sales, despite reviews that were tepid at best. I didn’t see it.

This meant, naturally, a sequel. When I took the daughter to the Princess and the Frog, Lydia laughed at the previews for Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. She had such a lousy time at the Disney movie on January 2 that we went to see Alvin 2 on January 9.

It was terrible. My daughter loved it.

Basically, the story finds a way to write out most of the David Seville character, stuck in a French hospital, putting the rodents (voiced by Justin Long as Alvin, Matthew Gray Gubler as Simon, and Jesse McCartney as Theodore) end up under the care of a slacker nephew (Zachary Levi of NBC’s Chuck) who plays video games constantly. Meanwhile the Chipmunks are sent to high school. The principal (Wendie Malick of the former NBC show, Just Shoot Me!), who has a chipmunks tattoo, is counting on the group to win the big prize so help save the school’s music program.

Meanwhile, the Chipmunks’ former manager has discovered three female chipmunks, dubbed the Chipettes (voiced by Amy Poehler, Anna Faris and Christina Applegate), to compete against Alvin and his brothers. And they look remarkably like the Chipmunks.

There’s more, but not worth retelling. When I say the film was bad, I don’t mean the picture was out of focus. I mean that there was little care taken in creating a coherent, interesting story. Cynical cinema making. Yet, this movie is bound to hit $200 million in less than a month.

The appeal for my daughter, I suppose, was the music, retreads of popular songs such as Single Ladies. There were only four people in the theater when we went, and the other two had left, so the daughter got to literally dance in the aisles. I’m glad she enjoyed it, though a rodent imperiled briefly made her nervous.

Oh, and for you completists, I should note that there’s a scene at the very end, after the credits; it is NOT worth waiting for.

How long will it be before the daughter regrets this post?

Oh, one more thing. Why is it Alvin and the Chipmunks? Is Alvin NOT a Chipmunk? Or is this like Diana Ross & the Supremes, somehow?


MOVIE REVIEW: The Blind Side

Seems that I either don’t see films, or I do see films and don’t seem to have time to actually review them.

Way back on New Years Day weekend, the wife and I got a babysitter and went to see The Blind Side, written and directed by John Lee Hancock, based on the Michael Lewis book I did not read. I HAD been getting a lot of information about this film quite a bit, though as much in Sports Illustrated as I did in Entertainment Weekly. Incidentally, The Blind Side refers to a quarterback getting hit while he’s not looking and the import of an offensive tackle protecting the QB’s vulnerability.

The movie tells the true story of Michael Oher (pronounced like ‘oar’, played by Quinton Aaron), a large, undereducated and mostly homeless black young man. He gets taken in by the Tuohy family, who are white, specifically by Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), with her husband Sean, a successful restaurateur (played by an almost unrecognizable Tim McGraw) succumbing to his spouse’s single-minded compassion. Their two kids, the boy S.J (Jae Head) and the girl Collins (Lily Collins, who looks amazingly like the young woman she portrayed) go along with the mom’s mission, S.J. quite enthusiastically.

The family, and some insightful teachers, help Michael fulfill his potential, both in class and on the football field. Michael also helps the Tuohys to learn about themselves. Oher eventually becomes an All-American offensive left tackle at Ole Miss and a first round draft choice with the Baltimore Ravens.

I liked it. Indeed, both my wife and I enjoyed it more than some critics (70% positive on Rotten Tomatoes), who used terms like “utterly unsurprising, unchallenging feel-good flick mostly ignores larger social concerns in telling its implausible tale.” Even some positive reviews suggest that it’s a predictable “feel-good sports/biographical drama…by-the-numbers. Yet for the most part, this cinematic ‘comfort food’ goes down pretty well.”

There was also criticism from more than one corner of the “institutional racism” in the film, that it is “rich white folks with big heart save poor black kid” that “needed to be more sociably responsible in its portrayal of blacks,” and that “all black people are not ghetto waiting to be saved.” I’m rather torn on this point. It’s true that most of the black people in this movie were poor and from the ghetto- Michael’s birth mother was a drug addict – and that the major black character, other than Michael, was a particularly obnoxious dude. All of this is true, yet I don’t know how much responsibility a single film is supposed to balance the portrayal of black people. My sense is that, prior to Michael, the Tuohy’s didn’t KNOW black people, so the folks they DID see fit the stereotype. Was the writer suppose to inject an upwardly-mobile black person, other than the woman from the NCAA?

Interesting note: many of the recruiting coaches, such as Phillip Fulmer, Lou Holtz and Nick Saban, play themselves, and I read in SI that not one of them is still with that program, noting the rapid turnover of college football head coaches. The real S.J. Tuohy, who’s now 16, has been razzed by opponents of his basketball team that his daddy needs to adopt someone for his team because “You suck!” And Michael Oher has been hazed by his Ravens’ teammates over the sentimentality of the film; I was pleased that in his last game of this season, he was getting kudos from the commentators for his play.

In any case, this movie lives or dies largely on Sandra Bullock’s portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy and she’s totally convincing in the role. Ms. Tuohy also liked it, commenting that she was pleased that Ms. Bullock had “nice ta-tas.”