Sunday, December 14, 2014

Cate Blanchett Cracks Up in Blue Jasmine

For last year's Blue Jasmine, Director Woody Allen was clearly inspired by the whole Bernie Madoff financial mess. It's a dramedy about a woman named Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) whose mental state is collapsing from years of fooling herself into thinking her husband (Alec Baldwin) is a good and honest man.

At the start of the film, Jasmine is leaving her once-lavish life in New York to go live with her distant sister in San Francisco. It opens as she is trying to rationalize her living-in-denial life to a complete stranger in the airport. Through a series of flashbacks, we see how she got to this point as she tries to pull it back together out west. 

Some critics said the movie is Allen's dig at his ex-wife Mia Farrow, with whom he has had an ugly, lengthy, public falling out. Whatever the case, Blanchett is nothing short of spellbinding as a cracked person. It's no wonder she won just about every best-actress trophy last year, including the Oscar.

As for where Blue Jasmine fits within my list of Woody Allen's best films, I say it's his eighth best, right after Vicky Christina Barcelona and before Everyone Says I Love You.

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Pop Culture Ephemera: 4-Star Books and Films That Everyone Has Already Seen

Here are a few items I've seen and read in the past several months.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - Yes, I know, I'm the last person in the world to get around to reading the first Harry Potter book. At least I saw the movie version years ago. But my excuse is that I was waiting to read it with Jackson, who was six last summer when we read it.

It's tough to argue against a book that seems to have improved literacy among an entire generation of kids. And it is a very entertaining book, although I was a little disappointed that more didn't happen in the story. It feels like author J.K. Rowling wanted to spread the plot out a little thin over the entire series to come.

The evil Lord Voldemort kills James and Lily Potter. Son Harry is orphaned to the terrible Dursley family. Ten years later, Hagrid saves him and takes him to Hogwarts wizard school. Harry makes friends with Ron and Hermione and becomes a star Quidditch player. At the end, Dumbledore tells Harry that his mother sacrificed her life to save Harry, and Voldemort didn't understand such a thing as this - love.

**** out of ***** stars

The Road - I also read and loved this Cormac McCarthy novel (my #56 all-time favorite) about a father and his son attempting to survive in a post-apocalyptic world gone mad. In the movie version from 2009, they walk down endless roads, just trying to survive, find food, and avoid flesh-eating gangs. It is unbearably sad, but probably as poignant an apocalypse movie as has ever been created. Anyone who's ever known the power of a father-son bond can't help but be moved.

**** out of ***** stars

Daddy Day Care - I had no expectations when I started watching this kids film, but then I got into it almost immediately and loved it by the end. I mean, really, how wrong can you go with Eddie Murphy, Jeff Garlin, and a bunch of cute kids?

Murphy is a marketing exec who gets laid off and, unhappy with his son's daycare run by Anjelica Huston, starts his own with fellow marketer Garlin.

You could do much worse watching a movie with your kids.

**** out of ***** stars

Friday, November 28, 2014

Giving Thanks to Professor Bill Ward's Life Lessons in Journalism

Professor Ward
A couple of weeks ago, I found out through Facebook that my top professional mentor, Bill Ward, had died at the age of 85.

Since moving to Washington D.C. 15 years ago, I had known Professor Ward, the title all his students knew him by, had lived in nearby Reston, Virginia since his retirement from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. And I had always regretted not somehow reuniting with him out here on the East Coast.

At least we followed each other online and he occasionally sent me his latest compilations of poetry through the mail. I've always sensed that SIUE was one of the hidden-gem journalism schools in the country and, because of Professor Ward and Nora Baker, who also died this year, the nowhere school of very little acclaim was the source behind dozens or hundreds of the country's best and most driven and successful journalists, PR pros, and law professors who studied under Ward and Baker.

Bill Plaschke
Bill Plaschke, an L.A. Times sportswriter who Professor Ward often referenced in my classes and was one of Ward's most acclaimed students, wrote a captivating eulogy this Thanksgiving to Professor Ward. Here are the parts of his article that seem equally like snippets of my undergrad life back in those hallowed SIUE journalism halls:

  • I was wandering the empty halls of SIUE, a state college in a swatch of pastures and woods down the highway from my parents' home. I walked into that cluttered closet [Ward's office] to announce my presence. That's where I first saw him, a middle-aged man who appeared to be a combination of Albert Einstein and Mr. Peabody, piles of frizzy white hair atop black horn-rimmed glasses, dressed in mounds of corduroy and surrounded by piles of newspapers. His name was Bill Ward.
  • Professor Ward had created an environment where everyone would be given a fair chance, where even the worst of budding journalists would be evaluated with no judgment, no bias, and best of all, no ceilings. Professor Ward's first lesson was that it was OK to dream. And then he taught me to write. Those human interest stories that appear in this space often enough to make hardcore sports fans shudder ... blame Professor Ward. He insisted sports was never really about sports, but about the people who played them. "The best thing about sports is its humanity," he would say. "Write the humanity."
  • Those short sentences and paragraphs in this column that drive everyone nuts ... Professor Ward again. He taught me to write as if I were having a conversation with readers around a campfire, nudging, explaining, infuriating, using my words to make them laugh or cry or think. "Write like you talk," he would say, and by now most folks know I talk fast and in spurts.
  • Professor Ward taught those lessons to a generation of budding SIUE journalists with a loud snort and an iron fist. He was my toughest editor. He was my harshest reader. He ran our small and obscure department as if it were a daily newspaper. If your copy was filled with typos or misspellings, you flunked the assignment. If you missed any deadline, you flunked the project.
  • I don't think I ever received an A. I don't think I ever even received an attaboy. Professor Ward had so much faith in me, in everybody, that we could never be good enough to justify it. I thought my sights were set impossibly high. He set them higher. Show up earlier than everyone. Stay later. Work harder.
  • From that cubbyhole he built one of the nation's top journalism programs. Our funny four-letter school would regularly beat the likes of Missouri and Northwestern in college writing competitions. They would enter stories about big-time college athletics, and we would enter a Keith Schopp story about a morbidly obese failed college wrestler that began, "The big man laughs."
  • It turned out I was not the best writer to study journalism at SIUE under Professor Ward. I'm not even the best Los Angeles Times writer to come out of his program. That would be our investigative reporter Paige St. John, a Pulitzer Prize winner, who would often sneak into a closed mass communications building and spend all night finishing her projects. "I sense I have not yet fulfilled his aspirations for me," she said this week.
I imagine that all of Professor Ward's students feel equally that they have not yet fulfilled his aspirations for us.

Paul McCartney On the Run in the 1970s

In the introduction to a new biography of Paul McCartney's surprisingly under-reported 1970s era, author Tom Doyle discovers a very human side to a person oft-perceived only as an international and almost beyond-human treasure.

"Between 1969 and 1981, McCartney was a man on the run - from his recent past as a Beatle, from his horrendous split with his bandmates, from the towering expectation that surrounded his every move. Behind his lasting image during that period as a Bambi-eyed soft-rock balladeer, he was actually a far more counterculturally leaning individual (albeit one overshadowed by the light-sucking John Lennon) than he was ever given credit for - freewheeling in his hippified way, taking to the road with "a bunch of nutters" for an impromptu, disorganized university tour with the proto-Wings, viewing the world through perma-stoned eyes, and defiantly continuing to flip off the authorities the world over who sought to criminalize him, all the while adopting a shrugging, amused attitude to it all."

Here are some other nuggets from the opening of Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s that have my mouth watering to get back to the rest of the book soon.

  • As 9/11 unfolded, McCartney was parked on the runway of JFK Airport in a commercial jet that was suddenly going nowhere.
  • He can't really use an iPod because the headphone system of listening to music reminds him too much of working in the studio.
  • He has his misgivings about reporters, which isn't surprising given all his years spent in the tabloids. "But they're not bastards, they're lovable rogues. They're just not as lovable as they used to be," he says.
  • He once hit a photographer, but it luckily didn't get reported. "I think he thought he deserved it."
  • "His eccentricity often gets lost behind his deceptive facade of straightness," Doyle writes.
  • In the late 60s, he thought about recording an album called Paul McCartney Goes Too Far, but he never did. "I was such a daring young thing. We were on this wacky adventure," he said.

Gone Girl Can't Help But Be Good in Movie Form

I wonder what the people in the theater who hadn't already read Gone Girl thought of the movie.

I loved the book as an enjoyable page-turner, and I enjoyed the movie as well. But it followed the book almost exactly, so all the Hitchcockian suspense was a little ruined by my prior knowledge of what was coming next.

Leaving that behind, Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike turn in really good performances as a fairly unlikeable man and his disappeared wife. Especially Pike, whose deep-throated blonde-bombshell performance clearly echoes and pays homage to the great Alfred Hitchcock leading ladies Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint, Janet Leigh, and Tippi Hedren.

David Fincher certainly doesn't hurt his already impressive resume of film direction, which includes Seven, Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

That said, Gone Girl was such a great book that it was a bit of a softball of an easy home run to turn into a movie.

**** out of ***** stars

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Classic Reads: The Battle of Good and Evil Summed Up in Moby Dick

Moby Dick is probably the greatest tale of good versus evil ever written.

Herman Melville wrestled throughout his epic novel with how man fits into the universe and, while the white whale may seem like the evil one for the book's generations of young readers, Captain Ahab is certainly far worse for his over-the-top obsession to kill the whale.

The story begins with Ishmael, a schoolmaster from Massachusetts who is left empty by his job and heads to New Bedford to find a new one on a whaling ship. The night before setting sail, he meets and befriends a bizarre fellow named Queequeg. They both set sail on the Pequod, a Quaker-owned whaler from Nantucket.

Starbuck and Stubb are in command at first because the mysterious captain remains in his cabin. But then, after a few days, the harsh Ahab appears, not with a wooden leg but with one made of whale bone. He is also scarred along his face down into his collar, making it look like it runs the length of his whole body.

Ahab announces that he will give a prize of gold to the first person on the ship to spot the great white whale Moby Dick. Starbuck and Stubb think Ahab is crazy and that he is bound to lose more than just his one leg to the sea monster. Not to mention that the whale would probably kill them all.

The Pequod encounters other ships whose captains warn Ahab not to seek out the whale. One English captain even has a fake arm also made of whale bone. Finally the crew receives enough clues that "there she blows" is soon uttered and, almost just as soon, the whale dives under the ship and splits it to pieces.

As the men engage in a torturous battle with the creature, Moby Dick becomes more and more listless. The rope from Ahab's flung harpoon coils around his neck and rips him into the water. All the crew is lost except Ishmael, who incidentally tells the tale.

Moby Dick is no doubt a must-read for everyone.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Best Magazine Reads: Freddie Mercury Was the Messenger of the Gods

Although I've never been a massive Queen fan, catchy songs like "Killer Queen," "You're My Best Friend," and "Under Pressure" are undeniably high in the rock cannon.

And when writer Mikal Gilmore has an article in Rolling Stone, I know it's going to be loaded with nuggets about the debauchery of whichever classic-rock act he's researched. Here's what I learned recently about Queen:

1. I knew Freddie Mercury grew up in Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa because I visited the Freddie Mercury gift shop there while on honeymoon in 2005. But I didn't recall his real name growing up there was Farrokh Bulsara, or that he went by the nickname of "Bucky" because of his teeth, a topic he was sensitive about his whole life. Teachers, instead, began affectionately calling him Freddie and he embraced it.

2. With British Colonial rule ending in 1964, riots broke out in Zanzibar and Mercury's family moved to England right at the time it began swinging with the Beatles and Rolling Stones.

3. The name Mercury was a reference to the Roman messenger of the gods.

4. It took Mercury a long time to realize he was gay. He always thought he liked women. Even till the end of his life, he referred to Mary Austin, his personal secretary and advisor, as his common-law wife.

5. Queen stopped touring the U.S. after 1982 because its audiences were the least accepting of Mercury's flamboyant stage persona. As guitarist Brian May said, there was always some other place that loved them a lot more than America and could let them be themselves.

6. Mercury's feelings were hurt when nobody from the band was invited to participate in Bob Geldolf's "Do They It's Christmastime?" But Geldolf invited them to play Live Aid London in 1985 and the band stole the show.

7. One day after Mercury finally announced to the world that he had AIDS, he died at age 45. Aretha Franklin sang at his funeral and he was cremated. Mary Austin placed his ashes in a location that has never been announced.

American Milkshake Looks at High-School Life in D.C. During the O.J. Years

American Milkshake is a fairly unknown Sundance high-school drama about a street- and book-smart white kid in Washington D.C. who attends a magnet school to avoid the "dorks" at what would have been his regular school.

All he wants to be is black, like the majority of students at the school and on the varsity basketball team that he makes as a token white person.

He dates a black girl. He later dates an Hispanic girl. He thinks dating these two girls at once is "dope" and will give him the street cred he so desires.

The filmmakers seem to have a good grasp on the silliness of Jolie Jolson - yes, he's a direct descendant of Al Jolson, made famous long ago for his song-and-dance routines in blackface - and the film makes a nice arc to display his coming of age and a certain level of maturity by film's end.

The last line of American Milkshake is hilarious and makes the movie both believable and inconsequential at the same time. That said, there is something very lovable about Jolie, played with a  knowing smirk by Tyler Ross, who doesn't even have an entry on Wikipedia!

With the O.J. Simpson trial happening throughout the background of the story, set in Jolie's senior year, this is a nice trip down memory lane of the mid-1990s, when Netscape was just beginning to rear its head and face-to-face relationships were the only relationships.

**** out of ***** stars

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Dramatic Range, With a Touch of Children's Hospital, Sparks In a World ...

If I weren't already a fan of Children's Hospital, sort of a beyond-bizarre version of Scrubs, I'm not sure what I would think of this In a World ...

Lake Bell stars, writes, directs, and produces this indie comic-drama. Children's Hospital's Rob Corddry and Ken Marino also have significant parts.

But the comparisons end there. This is not a wacko goofy film. If anything, it is almost a documentary on the competitive world of actors vying for voiceover parts in films and trailers.

Bell's character is the daughter of a legendary voiceover artist who is not ready to cede his roles to her. She wins a part that he wants. Family dysfunction ensues.

Even as a fan of many of these actors (and there are many many guest appearances from comedy and film stars), it took me nearly half the picture to warm up to them and feel like I cared about the niche industry of voiceover.

By the end, the characters and the story are absorbing. The filmmakers even achieve giving Corddry dramatic range.

***1/2 out of ***** stars

Monday, September 29, 2014

Classic Reads: Beowulf Teaches Us That Striving Doesn't Have to Be All About Success

It didn't take reality TV for people to want to be famous.

In college, as I studied English literature, I focused more on the significance of the mnemonic devices used by Northern Europeans to translate Beowulf over generations.

Taking a look back now, the morals of the story from a vicious time in the Sixth Century are perhaps equally as interesting. We learn that it is striving rather than success itself that "reveals and ennobles the true hero."

Beowulf is a warrior and principal advisor to the king of the land of Geats, located in what is today south Sweden and Denmark. He learns of a monster called Grendel that is devouring groups of humans. Beowulf travels to battle the monster. He fails to kill him but rips off his arm before the monster escapes.

Grendel's mother is furious and goes to find Beowulf. She almost succeeds in killing him, but he reaches for a sword nearby and plunges it through the monster's heart. He then beheads Grendel.

The story picks up many years later when Beowulf is an old man and king of the Geats. One day, he kills a dragon, but in the process, the dragon bites Beowulf in the neck, which kills him as well. 

Beowulf's ability to step up when needed and provide heroic acts is what endeared him to his people, and their love of him has powerfully been translated through all these years. At his funeral, his people said, "Of worldly kings, he was the mildest of men and the gentlest, most kind to his people, most eager for fame."

Find the other parts of this ongoing series of "Classic Reads" in the Books section.