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"There is no compromise", 26 December 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I remembered this movie fondly, and as more of a comedy. Re-viewing it, I see that it bristles with some of the harshest truths about reality.

Oliver (Michael Douglas) and Barbara (Kathleen Turner) meet under the most idyllic of circumstances, catching each other's attention amidst a blustery Nor'easter on atmospheric Nantucket Island. Betraying their competitive souls while outbidding each other at an auction, Oliver sees that the athletic Turner won't give in. Rather than take that as a deal-breaker, he finds it turns him on.

"Either this is the most romantic night of my life, or I'm the biggest slut in the world!" Barbara exults in bed.

As it turns out, their passionate lovemaking with a view of the ocean is the beginning of a slippery slope toward self-destruction.

I was amazed to discover that, upon returning to this fine film, I had totally forgotten the presence of Danny DeVito, who plays Gavin, Oliver's best and friend and eventual divorce attorney. DeVito is pitch-perfect in his depiction of a person who is the exact opposite of his beleaguered best bud -- a wisecracking character who learns from his experience and uses his discoveries to try for a better life.

"In your own life, by his point, you think you think who know what's gonna be," he tells Oliver, whom he is accompanying home from the hospital after Oliver's heart attack.

"You don't know! It's always just when you think you've got it figured out. Bingo! Something comes along and knocks you right on your ass." DeVito's advice -- "Don't underestimate her as an adversary" -- that falls on deaf ears.

On their first night together, Barbara tells Oliver something that is incredibly sexually validating. Despite his unhappiness with her, and her efforts to actually KILL him, Oliver never really hears past her intimation. This movie expertly demonstrates the devastating effects of being in denial.

All of the acting in this film is superb,and it was a pleasure to recognize the amazing Marianne Sagebrecht, who had shone in 1987's "Baghdad Café." In addition, great wit is displayed in the gradual revelation of the grandeur of the Roses' showcase home.

Another reviewer on this site says this film has gotten better with time. I entirely agree!

Nice music, eccentric headliner, 25 December 2014

Rod Stewart is a wonderful singer, and his raspy voice seems to get better with age.

This 2012 program plunks him into a homey, Christmas-party-type venue as he works his way through a conventional Noel repertoire.

Seemingly filmed by the ocean in LA, Stewart rides up to the concert location on a bicycle -- sans helmet, unfortunately -- then dashes off to put on a variety of festive costumes -- during which he's deferentially called "Mr. Stewart" -- and polishes off the singing assignment as if he's got other errands to get to.

Stewart's voice is classic, but we're left with the impression this performance is perfunctory.

I really like the guest spot featuring a honey-voiced Ceelo Green and a romantic trumpet solo by Chris Botti, during which several (possibly professional) dancing couples canoodled.

Stewart comes across as hollow and superficial in this outing, but if you employ this segment as something pleasant to have on in the background, while you attend to other things, it shouldn't fail to please.

Evil darkens a shortcut, 25 December 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Interesting retelling of a crime story that temporarily shattered the peace of 1955 Berkeley, CA.

Saddle-shoed Stephanie Bryan, the 14-year-old daughter of a doctor and his wife, stops at a sweet shop after school with a friend, chooses a scrumptious donut, fatefully parts ways with her pal, and disappears while heading down an arbor-roofed shortcut.

Stephanie was a good student and a responsible girl -- eldest of five kids, after all! -- and her mother knew something was wrong when she was late coming home. The Bryans endured several months of hell until Stephanie's body was discovered in a shallow Weaverville grave.

Burton Abbott, a clean-cut, married Berkeley accounting student, swore it was a frame-up, but suspicion had come to rest on him after his wife notified police after she'd found Stephanie's purse in her basement. (Funny how she'd called the cops before notifying her husband!) Scores of other people could have planted Stephanie's things there, since the cellar had served as a polling place recently. Huh??? Guess they did voting a lot different in the Fifties...

Abbott went to the gas chamber only two years after Stephanie's murder. According to Wikipedia, the case raised questions about executing someone based only on circumstantial evidence. Yet Abbott reportedly implied to a prison doctor that he could never admit to the crime because his mother, with whom he had lived, couldn't have dealt with that.

In an epilogue to this program, we're told that Abbott's mother maintained her son's innocence until her own death in 2004.

This segment features some home movies of a lovely baby girl...could these actually be of Stephanie? It would have been helpful if the filmmaker had noted whether the clips were a simulation or actual documentary footage.

In all, though, this is a nicely done episode of a worthy series.

Profile of a singer who mattered, 23 December 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Wonderful portrait of a folk icon whose contributions went far beyond music.

When I taped this documentary from public television in NYC, I for some reason didn't capture its first 30 minutes. What I did watch was a uniformly delightful excursion into a fascinating life.

Seeger broke into the folk scene as the suit-and-tie-wearing banjo player for the Weavers. From "Good night, Irene" to "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena," footage of the foursome is charming. (As happens sometimes with Frontline, no ID was provided for the group's lovely alto, but I thoroughly enjoyed hearing her reminiscences. What a beautiful, white-haired lady!)

Seeger said he quit the Weavers because they were going to do a commercial for cigarettes, telling his peers, "We don't need money that bad." (At another point in the documentary, Seeger notes, "I don't drink, I don't smoke, and I don't like nightclubs." When was the last time you heard a famous musician say that!?)

Seeger had married a German-born, Japanese-American woman whose father had done some translations of Marxist literature, I learned on Wikipedia. The singer was called in to testify before the McCarthy commission and the clips show a candid and personable man not betraying the least bit of defensiveness. Despite his obvious love for this country, Seeger was convicted and blackballed from TV for the next 17 years! For much of that time, the only people he could sing for were kids.

Seeger went on to bravely perform in support of causes such as civil rights and protests against the Vietnam War. "He wrote songs because he needed to," says a member of the Dixie Chicks. These included "If I Had a Hammer" and "Blowin' in the Wind." We hear bits of interviews from fellow activist-singers Mary Travers, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez. Ms. Baez notes that Seeger's appearances attracted momentum to his causes, enabling him to have a truly historic impact. Besides, as Seeger so cogently points out, did people think Lincoln hated his country when he spoke out against the Mexican War? Or that Mark Twain was unpatriotic when he derided the Spanish-American War?

"I look upon myself as a planter of seeds," Seeger says.

He went on to launch an environmental campaign that had a lot to do with cleaning up the industrially polluted Hudson River, and an annual festival perpetuating those efforts continues to this day.

Seeger died earlier this year, in his Nineties and just a few months shy of 70 years of marriage to his wife Toshi, whose own passing preceded his by less than a year.

One of the best things about this "Frontline" segment is listening to Seeger communicate through the years, always remaining slim and lithe, and often sporting a beard, well-worn sweater, and a folksy beanie. His eyes seem to sparkle, no matter what his age. What an example of someone who aged with grace!

"I'm just patient," Seeger remarks toward the end of the show. "That's what's going to save the human race."

Four repugnant people navel-gaze, 18 December 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

When I saw this was based on stories by Andre Dubus II, I was intrigued, as I'd enjoyed the little of him I'd read.

This disturbing film is a kind of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" for more recent generations, and it isn't very pleasant viewing. Which isn't to say it shouldn't be watched, especially by those who enjoy train wrecks.

At first I thought Terry (Laura Dern) had some integrity, but we sit through quite a few of her booze-fueled, rageful husband beatings, not to mention adulterous acting out. Her spouse, Jack, played by an impassive Mark Ruffalo, engages in bald-faced lying, voyeurism, and sudden bouts of copulation that would make a German shepherd seem like a sensitive lover by comparison.

Pretty, soulless Edith (Naomi Watts) is Terry's supposed friend, a vapid woman who allows herself to be Jack's whenever receptacle. And then there's Peter Krause as Hank, a lusty county-college English (what else?) prof with writer's block who throws himself a gala when The New Yorker accepts one of his poems.

"It's much easier living with a woman who feels loved," he tells Jack in an uncharacteristically insightful moment, even as he tries to pawn off his own spouse. (Which borscht-belt comedian was it who said, "Please, take my wife!")

Caught in the crossfire of the adults' relentless sturm und drang are the couples' wise-beyond-their-years offspring, all unbearably cute, of course. In one chilling sequence, one of the girls looks so pretty and vulnerable, it seems the near-suicidal Jack opts NOT to shove her off a cliff.

I can't help but wonder how Dubus, who suffered horrible physical trauma toward the end of his life -- see his striking Wikipedia bio -- felt about this celluloid version of his writings.

Unlike what I know of Dubus's stories, this film seems not terribly worthy. But I must admit it leaves an impression.

As another great writer penned, "What fools these mortals be!" Lord, why won't miserable couples divorce, or at least try a little marital counseling?

Being there, 16 December 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A funny, touching film on the importance of waking up to life and its simple pleasures.

Phil (Bill Murray) is a jaded TV weatherman who has become anesthetized to the routine of life. Rita (Andie MacDowell) is the kind of woman he wouldn't ordinarily pay that much attention to -- the producer who accompanies him to Punxatawney, Pa., for the annual Groundhog Day ritual.

Phil's life goes into pause mode -- at a particularly disliked juncture on the calendar -- until he "gets" that it's only by focusing and living in the moment that he can rediscover meaning.

There are many funny bits on this now-iconic film -- the "Jeopardy" sequence is priceless -- but I particularly enjoyed Phil's quotations from 19th-century French poetry. (What woman wouldn't swoon?)

Murray -- in, possibly, the performance of his career -- is amazing in the unlikely role of romantic lead, and the chemistry between him and Rita is powerful.

As a native of Pittsburgh, I loved the hometown, and exurban, backdrops for this film.

"Groundhog Day" was deeper and thought-provoking the second time around. Definitely worth a re-viewing!

Quite a trip, 14 December 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Affectionate "mockumentary" paying tribute to the folk-music scene of the Sixties.

Eugene Levy is positively mesmerizing as the sensitive, haltingly speaking Mitch Cohen, a singer/guitarist who once had an act with autoharp-embracing Mickey Crabbe, played by Catherine O'Hara at her best, earth-mother self.

Also wonderful are Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and director Christopher Guest as the trio Mark, Jerry, and Alan. Their musical numbers are pitch-perfectly representative of a certain folksy style of the time and the banter among them is a delight.

We also meet John Michael Higgins as the leader of a clean-cut, bubbly group that is highly representative of the era. A little too much time is given to his musings about his new-age religion but this is a minor point.

Running funny counterpoint to all the musicians' antics is a poker-faced Bob Balaban as Jonathan Steinbloom, the obsessive host of a reunion concert at New York's iconic Town Hall.

Levy and O'Hara form the sweet heartbeat of this film and every scene they share is a delight.

There are many jokes in this film, with such objects of gentle derision as public broadcasting, mental-health issues, and even transsexuality.

I loved this joyous, nostalgic experience with an exceptionally talented ensemble of actors.

Super!, 14 December 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A man I know once described his fascination with nature shows.

"Animals are just like people -- only more so." Here we see that idea turned on its head: It's dogs that exhibit restraint and dignity and the people who are just! This quietly hilarious "mockumentary" takes an almost anthropological interest in the quirks of homo sapiens...their obsessiveness, vanity, lust, oddity, and plain old silliness.

As is typical for a Christopher Guest production, the film is expertly cast. Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock are perfect as a highly strung yuppie couple; Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy delight as a nerd married to a (former?) floosie; Michael McKean and John Michael Higgins excel as an extremely stereotyped gay couple, and Ed Begley Jr. is hilarious as a poker-faced, unflappable hotel manager.

Perhaps the one, unexpected false note here is director Guest's playing of Harlan Pepper, a bloodhound owner who is also an amateur ventriloquist. There's a creep factor there I found a little dissonant.

A small quibble in an otherwise excellent production.

Out to Sea (1997)
Worthy swan song for pair of screen icons, 12 December 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I taped this for my 12-year-old son, who'd had so much fun watching "Grumpy Old Men" and "Grumpier Old Men." He giggled, but little did I suspect it would sweep ME away.

I'm giving this a 6 because it's not a great movie, but the expert ensemble work of the cast makes for a truly rare treat.

"Out to Sea" is apparently the last time Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau performed on film together -- only four and three years from their deaths, as it turned out.

Lemmon as Herb and Matthau as Charlie -- could he really have been called anything else? -- soar as brothers-in-law floundering in retirement without ladies on their arms.

What we have here is a love story wrapped in a moral -- Be Yourself! As in the best of Shakespeare's comedies, almost everyone pairs up by the end, and all's quite well that ends well...

Who cares that it's a crazy scheme that gets the septuagenarians on to a cruise ship bound for Chitzenitza, Mexico, to view a total eclipse of the sun?

Lemmon, 72 when this came out, makes for a convincing romantic lead, an ideal match for elegant widow Vivian (Gloria DeHaven). At first we think the far more earthy, 76-year-old Matthau, out to snag a woman with a hefty bank account, will set his sights on the predictably raunchy Elaine Stritch, playing Mavis. But we inevitably accept him as squire to Liz, portrayed by an ultra-sexy Dyan Cannon -- in her late 50s, amazingly, when this came out. We have as much fun watching as they enjoy, being together.

This movie's side characters are also a joy to behold, particularly Brent Spiner as the smarmy cruise emcee Gil Godwyn. I also enjoyed watching Donald O'Connor, of "Dancin' in the Rain" fame, wittily cast as a dance host, the dapper Hal Linden as one of his quipping peers, along with Brillo-voiced redhead Estelle Harris as a sex-starved cruise-ship passenger. (Wish she'd been given more screen time, however.)

Outtakes of each of these performers, dancing campily as the credits roll, is itself worth the price of admission.

Lemmon and Matthau were cultural treasures and this understated movie is a testament to both their talents and the magic of their on-screen partnership.

Excellent series, 11 December 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Well-told stories that often revolve love or lust gone wrong.

These little tales are based on real-life scenarios. I was particularly taken with the story of a professor at Tufts University who takes up with a prostitute and later kills her. Was it self-defense, or what? The re-enactments are fascinating.

Shows like CSI are one thing, but I sometimes wonder about the ethics of making entertainment out of real-life tragedy.

The ID channel offers quite a few similar series. Some have titles that, at least for me, preclude viewing ("Wives with Knives.") But there is no question these shows can make for psychologically compelling viewing.

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