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Attorney (since 1972), playwright, critic.
Ocassionally elected liberal Republican.
Lecturer on cultural history and theatre at New Jersey Institute of Technology, Newark, NJ (2000 to present)
Decent Readers' Digest Version (but Bring Back Columbus and Continuity Checkers!)
Potter fans rejoice (if only moderately): the latest installment in the film saga comes closer to the high standard of film adaptation set by the *first* two films than the last two over praised "mooovie-movies," even if in the slapdash "best of the highlights" approach the latest director takes (despite attention lavished on the big fight scenes near the end), we only have a decent Readers' Digest Potter with the bones of the plot and little if any of the motivations or substance - or even locations we have come to know and love.
The ubiquitous argument about how "radical editing" was unavoidable given the 875 page original book is essentially a nonsense. The problem is not that so many plot lines were shorn (they were, but by in large that's OK and not the reason the film doesn't totally satisfy), but that the core story is so sloppily told with so little care to motivations.
The movie assumes that most of the audience knows the story and will forgive story changes which will allow the director to delete characters (Dobby for instance) yet stick some characters (Kreacher) in for a scene or two but omit the only REASONS they were in the BOOK in the first place.
Not to give away plot revisions, which are in fact relatively minor - ranging from who proposed the use of "The Room of Requirement" to who exposes its use (a particularly nasty change), to how the supply of "Veritas Serum" is supposedly used (or the missing explanation necessary as a result of the change as to why it didn't work) - but a simple list of what is left OUT of the movie from the book (details which need NOT have taken significant screen time if any additional at all - NOT major sub-plots) may serve as warning against disappointment:
*The coaches which the Thestrals pull (they're mere dogcarts now). *Quiddich (playing or bans even referred to). *Confiscation of brooms (requiring alternate transportation to distant points). *Lessons (of any kind except in the D.A.!). *House Elves (except for two brief, non-plot appearances from "Kreacher"). *The Invisibility Cloak. *The Marauders' Map. *Pensives. *St. Mungo's. *Ghosts AND poltergeists. *Cleaning of the Headquarters of the Order. *The *concept* of "Secret Keeper". *The Hour Glasses and the House Point system (why not, since they omitted the scoring from the contests in ...Goblet of Fire!?) *Dumbledore's Office (and access to it or lack thereof). *How the D.A. was named (or how Umbridge heard about it). *The enchanted Galleons communication system (or any substitute). *Any explicit blockage/monitoring of student communication including the Flue Network and Owls! *The Quibbler *Any censorship of outside publications. *Umbridge's racism (or WHY her actions against the centaurs are so provocative). *Attacks on Hagrid AND/OR McGonagall *Outside O.W.L. examiners. *Why Filch likes Umbridge so much. *Any hint as to why Neville may be such an important character - or might have been even MORE important. *Magical swamps. *ANY attacks on Umbridge at all or student resistance to her regime (except at the *one* time Rowling specifically made it clear the Weasley's at least would NOT - when it would interrupt important student activities - specifically when they are sitting for O.W.L. exams!) *The elimination of *any* member of the Order of the Phoenix from Hogwart's grounds *except* Dumbledore so there was a REASON Harry couldn't call on them for assistance in a crisis. *Who MADE "the prophesy," why it is important & why it is a secret. *How the Dementors came to BE in Little Wingins. *Any celebration of Umbridge's departure (her *rescue* is not even mentioned) and most stunning of all, *HARRY'S SCAR* (it literally isn't ON his forehead until it makes one brief, suddenly darkly drawn in appearance late in the movie)!
OK, readers may well wonder how they COULD tell the story without these things (except for the final fight scene, this film eliminates more actual MAGIC from Hogwarts than Umbridge does!), but still, over all the film works. Rowlings provided a rattling good allegory of right wing governmental repression.
Imelda Staunton's Umbridge is an evil joy to behold (even if her best scenes were eliminated), and Evanna Lynch's sublime Luna Lovegood is a true find (even if the REASON for her character to be IN the book - her publisher father - has also been eliminated). Most of the student cast is growing wonderfully into their roles - from the three leads to (especially) Neville Longbottom.
The utterly silly (frequently noisy!) plot changes surrounding The Room of Requirement or even the astoundingly stupid and time wasting taking down of all the portraits on the Hogwart's walls can't undercut what remains a fast moving fun story for reader and non-reader alike. Those who know the book will be aware how much better this movie could have been. Those who don't won't have to worry too much about it - despite the odd plot line left hanging and action curiously unmotivated - director Yates keeps things spinning along so swiftly, most won't notice 'till long after the interminable crawl at the end is a distant memory.
Jam & Jerusalem (2006)
For fans of countryside ennui only
OK, forewarned that the first episode was exceedingly slow, but promised that later episodes grew in depth and gentle village humor, I slogged through for the first five (a fan friend shared the first seven episodes with me in the usually strong theory that immersing oneself in characters one can lose yourself in their world) and skipped to the finale which involved amateur theatricals and somehow seemed emblematic of the whole enterprise. If there was something magnificent in six, I may never know.
The portrait of British countryside life is doubtless strong and faithful, but I guess I'm too much of a city boy. Fans of "Last of the Summer Wine" (though it had stronger character development) or "The Vicar of Dibley" (if you thought the humor in the latter is too intrusive) will doubtless take to this series like ducks to water, but others be warned: this has nothing of the warm character development of "All Creatures Great and Small" or the sophisticated humor of "Yes Minister" or "Hot Lead" (but also blessedly none of the camp of "Are You Being Served").
It is what it is, but I enjoyed my actual time in the British countryside with real people more than my few hours with this strangely insulting show.
Wonderful mindless fun - awfully good mindFUL fun
RATATOUILLE, the latest deservedly successful Pixar entry in the animation sweepstakes is effortlessly the best summer movie for families who want an outing that won't insult the kids and won't go over the heads of the adults. It really does have all the elements for cross-over cartoon success: cute fuzzy characters, front loaded (but "comic" - no gore and no one dies despite many shotgun blasts and talk of poison) violence, physical discomfort (as the "little chef" and his human counterpart work out their communication system), sexless romance (the human and the girlfriend he's desperate to impress) and a comic villain who the fuzzy character can defeat repeatedly in beautifully plotted farce choreography.
The capper, of course, is that the film also wants to be an allegory on people being judged on their ABILITIES rather than their appearances, being *honest* about those abilities (the fuzzy little guy is a great natural and self-trained cook, the human is neither) and the importance of TEAMWORK (the real trouble comes when egos get in the way). So far so good.
Unfortunately, it also has a massive caveat to the allegory and the enjoyment (knocking two points off the rating for me): rats in the kitchen. Well, um, yes, that will give some people pause if they actually think about what they are seeing (adults are inclined to do that). Rats are legally verboten in most places of food preparation - and it has nothing to do with anything that is their fault. They ARE cute and fuzzy, but they also may carry ticks and fleas which frequently carry disease. Living in less than cleanly places, they walk through places and things with high bacterial counts. Unhealthy.
The film is brave enough to realize they have to address this little problem - the baggage more sophisticated viewers who are flocking to Pixar's best work WILL being in with them - and so the film backs their comic villain (his initial defeat over "the will" is far to quick and "tossed off" to be as satisfying as it should be) with a restaurant health inspector who is comically dealt with temporarily, but since the authors couldn't actually kill him off or believably convert him, they were stuck for a predictably happy ending.
In a plot twist which young audiences will have to really scramble to follow (actually they may not care, but their parents who will have to explain it to them if they do will need to pay attention) they settle for a wise, if slightly melancholy one.
Does it matter? Not as much as you might think, but it does keep what comes very close to being a classic from true greatness and leaves the rightly enthusiastic audiences with just a very, very good film. Don't miss it - there is so much clever execution to revel in - but be prepared NOT to check your mind at the door. This is a film which might be more fun if you could, but will leave you with much more to think about when you don't, even if it undercuts the allegory and some of the fun. That in itself can be very satisfying.
El diputado (1979)
Important heir to THE VICTIM, well directed and played
Released a decade after Stonewall, the same year as the more broadly successful farce LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, and almost a decade before Almodovar's break-through to the U.S. market, LAW OF DESIRE, EL DIPUTADO was a terribly important film for a generation of young gay men hungry to see their problems treated with respect and intelligence. Without even intending to, it reopened the doors to appreciating subtitled "foreign" films for many of them.
One wishes EL DIPUTADO seemed more dated today as it looks at a well meaning bisexual socialist candidate for office (and his attractive, understanding wife) in a Spain still dominated by Franco fascists using every dirty trick to hold onto power after Franco's death as the country struggled to re-establish a real democracy under King Juan-Carlos, but in vividly recalling the British landmark film, THE VICTIM, which focused on the statutes repressing gays (once rightly called "The Blackmailer's Bill of Rights"), instead it rings painfully true and even relevant.
José Sacristán as the troubled socialist Deputy, Roberto Orbea is utterly charming and holds his own in part thanks to the appropriate political charisma of María Luisa San José as his wife Carmen. One might expect the charismatic Ángel Pardo as the dangerous hustler, Nes, to be the third driving force in the film (and his scenes do sizzle), but it is the layered lost innocence of José Luis Alonso's Juanito (the street kid Orbea becomes obsessed with) on which the film and Orbea's fate turn.
In 1978, EL DIPUTADO was marketed as a "gay film," and that was probably the only way it could have been accepted then, but in more enlightened times, it stands out for any audience as an excellent examination of the hypocrisy of right wing politics, and the problems we create for good men AND women when we force them into false roles by denying them the solace and support of marriage because they love the wrong people.
Terms of Endearment (1983)
A "Chick Flick" to give a bad name to the Genre
Yes, Debra Winger is wonderful. Yes, the almost always underrated (and then recent recruit from the New York stage) Jeff Daniels gives a heartfelt real performance as the unfairly disparaged husband. Yes, perennial film favorite Shirley MacLaine chews scenery in every way imaginable and is matched every step of the way by Jack Nicholson in the first of his "how far over the top will the director let me go?" performances . . . but the bottom line is how much tolerance do you have for a film mother-in-law who tells her daughter (Winger) that any husband (Daniels) who becomes the HEAD of the English Department at a major university (or ANY similar job at the top of his profession) is a "loser" because the job requires that the couple live in a city other than where the mother is living (and "catting around" with Nicholson).
Do you believe *anything* that woman is going to say in the rest of the film?
A generation or two of husbands and boyfriends have sidled up to their wives and girlfriends (in tears after the manipulative final hospital scene) and said how wonderful the mother-daughter love bond was. But it doesn't take a major cynic to wonder if it wasn't more in the hope of "getting lucky" than genuine enjoyment of the film.
There's nothing *wrong* with honest manipulation of emotions with idealized mother/daughter ties (OR father/son or even buddy/buddy - I've seen more grown men dissolved in tears after FIELD OF DREAMS or that straight teenage boy "stroke film" TOP GUN than I have women after TERMS OF ENDEARMENT), but the underlying relationship really OUGHT to be an admirable, healthy one. Many may feel that's what TERMS OF ENDEARMENT offers, but a healthy minority of us will beg to differ.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Brilliant cast and director; overpraised twisted propaganda
Coming soon after the United States had suffered a humiliating defeat trying to prop up a corrupt minority government in Vietnam and the unemployment rate in the "rust belt" was making national news, rising but fiscally uncontrolled director Michael Cimino assembled some of the greatest of the new generation of university trained actors for what amounts to a phony artistic commercial pandering to the great middle American "silent majority" who didn't know (and didn't care) how the world could have turned against them.
Because the story seemed "edgy" with extreme, seemingly unmotivated violence (the Vietnam torture and "Russian Roulette" scenes are all many of its fans remember from the film) and justly flaunted the layered performances which Cimino drew from his superb cast and cinematographer, many if not most critics (and the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences) hailed it as a major work of art. It holds its reputation today because the world (for many of the same reasons - not to mention the self centered world view of a couple "cowboy" presidents) has remained a violent place and frequently unfriendly to well meaning Americans. What THE DEER HUNTER actually is is a piece of S&M pornography stroking "Middle America" with the illusion that nothing is their fault and the rest of the world is even more mindlessly violent than the unemployed steelworker who defines his existence by how freely he can kill animals with his (unregulated) gun. That they can identify with; it takes no deep thought or understanding.
The tragedy (and irony) in the over-praise heaped on the excessively unpleasant (but well made) DEER HUNTER is that some years later, when Cimino directed an actual masterpiece tying together the mythology and history of the American East and West - with an only slightly less accomplished cast - HEAVEN'S GATE was eviscerated for all the same excesses the director produced to far less effect in THE DEER HUNTER, the film proved a financial disaster and destroyed the producing studio.
While the later film was epic in proportion and had sex and violence aplenty, IT lacked the S&M, torture and kinky sexual overtones - and sadly, the audience that flocked to THE DEER HUNTER. One must suspect the two were not unrelated, and THAT'S a real shame.
Black Like Me (1964)
Flawed but important book; flawed but minor movie
Obviously hampered by a small "independent" budget and the casting of James Whitmore (a fine stage actor who, unlike the original author of the book, John Howard Griffin, simply cannot believably pass for a black man) in the lead, director Carl Lerner's screenplay (co-written with Gerda Lerner and an uncredited Paul Green) shuns Griffin's chronological story telling through dated diary entries and rearranges the events Griffin told so well to surprisingly LESS dramatic effect, but it gives a movingly honest portrayal of life in the South near the start of the long over-due civil rights movement.
The year this film was released my (white) family was transferred to a suburb of Atlanta, Ga. from a Virginia suburb of Washington D.C., and enroute we were stunned to see Klansmen in full regalia out on the interstate in North Carolina inspecting cars coming down from the north. It was just one of those things one had to live with at the time - like civil rights workers being murdered and their killers, when caught, being acquitted by all white juries - but this film manages, despite honestly showing the unremitting low grade caution every black person had to live with, and the blatant racism of a few Southern whites, to also be fair to the majority which was merely oblivious to - and sometimes even quietly disapproving of the evil around them - who wouldn't intentionally hurt a black person.
This well meaning majority,unintentionally perpetuating what they saw as "something they couldn't do anything about," eventually came around - and the book helped, even if the movie went largely unseen.
One of the most effecting - but at the same time least persuasive - sections of the film comes late, when Whitmore/Griffin's character tries to justify his actions to a rising young black activist (excellently played to type by Al Freeman Jr.). As it turned out, Griffin's book actually did help in the long struggle for equality, bringing the reality of a shame to the attention of the rest of the nation which needed the reminder as it demanded and helped the South come into the 20th Century, but the film only touches on the screams of outrage from the South at the mirror being held up so honestly to something they did not wish to see.
This was only a few years after the "Stars and Bars" (the old Confederate Battle Flag alluded to so effectively in the opening credits of this film) was pointedly added to the Georgia state flag in protest to Federal Civil Rights legislation. Bigots (self identifying and otherwise) called it an emblem of "local pride and heritage" - realists saw it for what it was in the modern usage and timing: a symbol of hate, rebellion and intimidation.
Times really have changed radically in the 40+ years since this film was made, and today the movie is chiefly valuable as a document of what life was like in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia during Griffin's all too brief (one month) sojourn on the other side of the color barrier. The street scenes and home details are perfectly observed. As one who lived through the period, I can testify the film is not over stated politically or socially.
The movie BLACK LIKE ME does not portray "every white person as a bigot" (though in my years growing up in the South, I never met a bigot who self-identified as one), but it does show how a rotten few can intimidate a complacent majority on any issue. As we let some politicians play "the terror card" to suspend out liberties in the 21st Century, or the pseudo-"religious" and "guilt by association cards" to deny the right to marriage to significant parts of the population at a time when stable relationships are in society's best interest, it is perhaps a lesson worth remembering. The sad thing is that for the most part, the only people who will bother to watch this flawed but decent film are for the most part the ones who already know.
Interesting ("retro" on so many levels) Indie Success
No, it isn't Disney, and it isn't even quite Shakespeare (the almost too clever but crafty subtitle "Sealed With A Kiss" tells us that), but as a throwback to one and a light introduction to the other, this very little (77 minute) film deserves to find an appreciative audience.
The one-man, single cell "flat" animation is smoothly done and handsome. While the brown and yellow Romeo and Juliet seals (to distinguish between the Montague and Capulet herds) are closer to the look of Casper the Ghost and friends than the more detailed "flat" animation from the corporate giants at Disney, Pixar or Bluth, it is several steps ahead of the still popular (among the undemanding young) work associated with Rankin-Bass. The standard Nibbelink maintains is consistent and impressive. Even the Elephant Seal "Prince" who stands in for Shakespeare's Duke who threatens any who would disturb the streets of his Venice does not recall the visual sloppiness of the broad lines Ursula, the evil witch in Disney's LITTLE MERMAID was rendered in.
The script might have tried a little harder (it omits more Shakespearian characters than it had to - where's the nurse? - and while it feels free to drop in "famous" Shakespearian quotes from other plays at any convenient turn for the amusement of the adult audience, it could have used a few more in the actual plot without turning off the younger set), but it is coherent and even in "smoothing out" the rough edges of one of Shakespeare's most famous tragedies for overly sensitive parents, it preserves the essence of most of Shakespeare's lessons (at least as interpreted these 400 years later).
Charm is the key word here - it is a charming film, and a very nicely done one, even if it were from a major studio. From a one-man operation it's close to a miracle that any student of film or animation should put on their "must-discover" list. Even before the kids are ready for MONSTERS INC. or SHREK 1, 2 or 3, this ROMEO AND JULIET, Sealed With A Kiss would be a very good choice for a wise parent.
The Honey Pot (1967)
Modern twist on Volpone glows
Coming at the end of a prosperous string of all-star mystery films, THE HONEY POT suffered more from a lame title and timing than anything on screen when first released (an even worse title, "Up Pops Murder" didn't help when the film was first released to television).
The typically superb script and direction from Joseph L. Mankiewicz, from a play by mystery writer Frederick Knott, inspired in turn by Ben Johnson's classic play, VOLPONE, THE HONEY POT could not have had a better cast with Rex Harrison (at the top of his game) as the supposedly super-wealthy Cecil Fox mentally tilting with his secretary, Cliff Robertson, and a nosy nurse/love interest for Robertson, a very young Maggie Smith (younger viewers may be interested to see this very different performance from HARRY POTTER's Professor McGonagall - as well as her amazing Desdemona opposite Olivier's OTHELLO) and a trio of ex-loves, Edie Adams, Cappucine and Susan Hayward all in Fox's beautiful Venetian palatzo (the exterior shots are as gorgeous and the interiors).
A death happens (accident? perhaps murder?) and a Venetian police inspector, Adolfo Celi, enters the picture (lovely side note as his family at home is enraptured with PERRY MASON on American TV more than his real-life work) and the film starts to leave Ben Johnson's Volpone behind and delve into more complex games.
To be frank, this film has long been among my favorites - I have been accused of teaching an entire university course on Mystery Writers just to develop an audience for it. Showing the film at the conclusion of the course, after considering the progression of great mystery writing from Poe to Conan Doyle to Christie, Hammett and beyond, this marvelous under-appreciated work from Knott & Mankiewicz never fails to grab them. It's well worth a look for anyone interested in good literate fun, great performances and writing that don't depend on splatter gore, special effects or CGI.
While the ongoing box-office clout of stars Harrison and Hayward got the film a limited VHS release, it's hard to a copy today - but well worth the search.
Wonderful film...if only it had a better title.
Creature Comforts (2007)
The British claymation series putting "witty" conversations taped from "average" people in the mouths of "cute" fanciful creatures at least had the advantage for non-British viewers of seeming droll and the kind of rarefied cultured humor you couldn't get on U.S. television. Someone made the mistake of PUTTING it on U.S. television.
Sort of like the sadly miscast American version of the sublime Brit-com COUPLING which died in a month on NBC when the same basic scripts didn't "translate" from British English to American English, what seemed droll and cultured (and just a BIT dull) in England, comes across in CREATURE COMFORTS, the American Version, as simply boredom with puppets. There's no through plot-line, no characters and after one and a half episodes watched (of the three ultimately aired), no reason to suffer through more.
The only positive thing to be said about the new summer series and the mercifully brief run it had is that the claymation is at least professionally done and coming as a set-up for the single worst show on the CBS schedule, The New Adventures of Old Christine (or "how to be a HORRIBLE mother - or person - in one interminable, unfunny lesson"), kids who wanted to stay up past their bedtime happily ran to bed rather than sit through this show, and the adults could wait to tune in until 9pm when "Two and A Half Men" (guilty pleasure) and "How I Met Your Mother" (actual quality writing) come on.