Category Archives: Movie Reviews


April 21st, 2017 2 Comments


I have a confession to make.


I’m guilty.


Guilty of a terrible error of omission.


(Along with a lot of other things that we won’t go into right now.)


Yes, it’s true.


In my last blog extolling the junk food glories of Kong: Skull Island, I neglected to mention the remarkable performance of Brie Larson as Mason Weaver, a photojournalist who has covered wars all over this conflicted globe of ours.


Like most war photographers, she is beautiful, sexy (in her case, clothes, skimpy as they may be, do indeed make the woman), possessed of a wonderful freshness, altruism and sensitivity, a sensitivity reflected in her appreciation of nature and her feelings for that lovable old ape named Kong.


In fact, Larson’s portrait of Weaver is, quite possibly, the most convincing portrait of a professional woman to hit the big screen since Denise Richards’ Dr. Christmas Jones.


As I’m sure you recall, Christmas…




No one among you remembers Christmas?


Surely you’ve not forgotten the late, great James Bond thriller, The World Is Not Enough.


All right.


Now we’re getting somewhere.


Do you also remember a tank top, a bare midriff, and a pair of impossibly tight short shorts?


Of course you do!


Well…that, my friends, was the official uniform of Dr. Christmas Jones, the lab coat she donned when working to dismantle nuclear warheads in Kazihkstan.


Ably played by the brainy Richards who swayed with a wiggle when she walked, Dr. Christmas Jones was a nuclear scientist like no other.


Oppenheimer may have fathered the atomic bomb.  He may, as he himself acknowledged, “have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”  But Christmas, by helping Bond foil the plot of a nuclear terrorist, was the savior of our world.


And she was amply rewarded for her efforts…by a tryst with the sexy superspy at the end of the film, a tryst that concluded with his romantic observation that he’d always thought Christmas came only once a year.


It should, I suppose, be no surprise that Larson’s Weaver equals or, quite possibly, surpasses Richards’ Jones.


It was, after all, Larson who triumphed over such notables as Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence, Charlotte Rampling and Saoirse Ronan in last year’s Academy Awards, taking home the Best Actress trophy for her compelling turn as Ma, the abused mother in Room.


Think of it!


From Ma to Mason.


From one of the most complex and layered performances of the decade to

a dazzling turn as obligatory sex object.


Now that’s what I call an actress!


Some of you might be tempted to use another word, but you would be wrong.


Every working actor, regardless of his or her place on the Hollywood pyramid, knows an acting career is a very slippery slope.


They know that regardless of what they’ve achieved, it can all go away in an instant.


The fame, the glamour, the wealth can disappear overnight.


You can be sexy, smoldering Veronica Lake—the star of This Gun for Hire, I Married a Witch and Sullivan’s Travels—once minute, and the next, a waitress in a cocktail bar.


And so the working actor…works.


Oh, all of them want the complex, layered, challenging roles that will cast a long shadow in the annals of film, but at the most basic level, they simply want to…work.


To put food on the table, a roof over their head, and if they get very, very lucky, an occasional Louis Vuitton on their shoulders.


As a result, they often end up accepting roles that, in an ideal world, they could contemptuously reject.


What does this get them?


Some degree of financial security.


I would, for example, bet big money that Larson’s fee for Kong was substantially higher than it was for Room.


And it gets them opportunity, the opportunity to do the sorts of roles they’d prefer because they’re perceived as bankable.


Agents and producers and execs saying, ”Her last film went through the roof.”


And so it is that a Brie Larson goes from Room to Kong…or an Eddie Redmayne moves from The Theory of Everything and The Danish Girl to Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.


They follow the example of Irving Thalberg, who was convinced that he had to make three big commercial successes in order to earn the right to make a little film he really cared about.


Actors do it.


Writers do it.


Directors do it.


They take on potentially popular schlock to earn the right to make movies that matter.


My dear friend and colleague, director William A. Graham, had a strong grasp of this Hollywood reality.


Billy directed countless series episodes, eight or ten features, and literally dozens of television movies.


He never stopped working.


He told his wife Janet that he had to do three projects a year—one for expenses, one for retirement, and one for their boat, which he had sailed around Cape Horn.


Many of them were straight-forward programmers, but Billy’s motto was “Quality…whether they want it or not,” and his obsessive work ethic brought him the opportunity to do the occasional classic—like The Amazing Howard Hughes, Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones, The Man Who Captured Eichmann, and of course, the unforgettable Death of a Cheerleader.


It’s easy to condemn this approach to a career in Hollywood—to chant with Terence Howard, in that Academy Award winning song, “It’s hard out there for a pimp/When you gotta get the money for the rent.”


It is hard out there.


But it’s not pimping when you choose to do the work that comes your way.



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April 7th, 2017 7 Comments



I’ve always loved junk food.


Heaps of sugar?




A high content of artery-clogging fat?


Bring it on!


Obscene amounts of preservatives?


The obvious explanation for my youthful good looks.


The faster the food, the more furious the gastric distress, the greater the appeal.


I have, in fact, been a veritable gourmand of empty calories since the age of consciousness.


The power of Hormel canned chili!


The glory of the Hostess Snowball!


And the sinful satisfaction of cherry Kool-Aid!


Deliver these evils to me, Lord, and I am yours.


I freely confess that from boyhood on, I have demonstrated similar taste in art, music, literature and film.


Norman Rockwell?


Now there was a painter, incomparable, unmatched…until, of course, Thomas Kinkade came along.


The Hollywood Argyles?


Who could have guessed that a bunch of unknowns recruited from a busy street corner in TinselTown could produce a wonder like “Alley-Oop”?


Archie comics?


So glorious, so innovative, so original that decades after their first appearance, they have inspired a brilliant new television series.


Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors?


An afterlife on stage, film and video rivaling that of Kryptonite!


When it comes to junk…


…I know whereof I speak.


And that, my friends, brings me to the latest entry in Hollywood’s on-going marathon of tent pole pictures—the supremely silly Kong: Skull Island.


Now, given the current climate of critical correctness, I probably shouldn’t admit that I have even seen the film in question, let alone that I enjoyed it, but I’m going to trust your discretion and ask you to keep my dirty little secret, secret.


To begin…


Kong is an epic so vast in scope that it took four credited (and God only knows how many uncredited) writers to conceive and execute the screenplay.


Everyone knows that four are better than one…and no one knows it better than today’s corporate studio executives, who compulsively throw writer after writer at projects until they achieve perfection.


Well, these four have really delivered, creating a story that one of them claims was inspired by…are you ready for this?


Apocalypse Now!


It hadn’t occurred to me…until the writer pointed it out…but once he had, the comparison was inescapable: both are built around a journey up a river and climax in a confrontation with an unspeakable horror.


In the case of Apocalypse Now! the horror was Marlon Brando’s performance as Colonel Kurtz.


In the case of Skull Island, it is the battle between Kong and “The Big One”—the granddaddy of all the Skullcrawlers that infest the aforementioned island.


So this masterful new film has an honored place in our cinematic heritage…and just in case you, like me, missed the connection, the writers have named one of their characters…Conrad.




You know.


Wink, wink.


The character has the same name as that forgotten writer whose Heart of Darkness was the basis for Apocalypse.


The Conrad/Coppola connection is the first major contribution of this distinguished quartet of writers.


The second is…






They have not only made Kong bigger than ever before—he looks to be at least 200 feet tall, and of course, just as four are better than one, bigger is always best…


To repeat…


…they’ve not only made him bigger than before…


…they have made him the misunderstood hero of this epic extravaganza, the protector of the island and its people, their sole defense against the hideous Skullcrawlers.


This was a brilliant stroke on their part.




Because most of the other players in the story are about as colorful and exciting as yesterday’s dishwater.


(Even Sam Jackson’s energetic chewing of the scenery fails to make much of an impression…or much sense.)


When it comes to a character the audience can relate to, the big ape is it.








And well-groomed!


He even maintains good dental hygiene.


No gorilla breath for him, thank you very much.


Without his obvious conviction that cleanliness is next to godliness, we would never have gotten the intensely moving scene in which the heroine, standing on a cliff, reaches out and touches Kong’s nose.


It is a scene that rivals the unforgettable close-up of Romeo and Juliet’s hands reaching out to each other in Zeffirelli’s masterful adaptation of the classic love story.


A scene that recalls Michelangelo’s depiction of God’s hand reaching out to Adam to bestow the gift of life.


A sensitive moment so sensitively acted that I’m tempted to propose that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences create a new category for next year’s awards…




Kong would eat his rivals.



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March 24th, 2017 9 Comments


I’ve always mistrusted critics.


Truth be known, there’s a part of me that subscribes to the old saw that those who can’t, criticize.


I was, however, forced to reconsider all of this when my son—my own son—proved himself a gifted critic!


It was a completely unexpected development.


He had, after all, begun his adult life as a stuntman, dying conspicuously in a number of Steven Segal films—most memorably when Segal threw him backwards through a window in what became the signature image of the movie.


He was, in other words…how shall I put it?


He leaned more heavily toward the physical than the intellectual, and his interest in the arts was best described as minimal.




Let’s be honest.


It was non-existent.


And so it was that his wife decided to civilize him.




By dragging him (kicking and screaming, I’m sure) to L.A.’s MOMA and exposing him to resplendent examples of contemporary art.


It was in a gallery dedicated to installation art that his talent first manifested itself.


The installation in question, which I myself was never privileged to view, sat on the floor.


Steven studied it carefully.


Then stood over it.




And began to grunt and groan like someone suffering terminal constipation.


His wife was, for reasons that will forever elude me, mortified.


I, however, when I learned of the incident, swelled with pride—genuinely dazzled by his critical insight.


I had a critic in the family!


Henceforth, I did my best to banish my memory of such things as the L.A. Times art critic’s commentary on “Rusty Pipe.”


It, like the piece Steven reviewed, was an installation at L.A.’s MOMA—in this case, a length of rusty pipe removed from a demolition site and suspended from the ceiling of an alcove in one of the museum’s galleries.


The Times critic was so impressed with it that he wrote two full pages of analysis, employing words and concepts far beyond my humble capacity to understand.


To be honest, I have to admit that everything in me cried out, “It’s just a piece of pipe, for God’s sake.”


In fact, I felt the commentary deserved much the same response as my son gave that other piece of sh…




I meant to say, that other piece of installation art.


I have to admit that the “Rusty Pipe” review sorely tested my resolve to admire critics now that my son was one of them.


But I persisted until just the other day when I stumbled upon another Times reviewer and his evaluation of Terence Malick’s Song to Song, which recently debuted at Austin’s SXSW Festival.


Now, you should know that I was blown away by Malick’s first two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven—both examples of stunning poetic realism, both examinations of characters driven by forces they can neither understand nor control.


I was not alone.


Hollywood was abuzz with talk of this remarkable new filmmaker.


Michael Eisner, my boss at Paramount, had done more than just talk about him–he had given him a generous contract, renewing it year after year even though Malick had disappeared and delivered nothing for years on end.


It is, I’m convinced, unwise to declare any artist a genius.


The danger is, of course, that he or she will believe what people are saying, take it so completely to heart that they lapse into total self-indulgence.


When, after twenty years, Malick finally reappeared on the scene, the artist in him had gone missing in action, replaced by a poseur— pretentious, contemptuous of the members of his audience, uninterested in entertaining them or telling them a coherent story or creating compelling characters they could care about.




…when I came across Justin Chang’s rapturous review of Malick’s latest effort—a review that refers to the writer-director’s incoherent, uninvolving The Tree of Life as a “masterwork” and even manages to praise his deliberate disregard of the rules of linear storytelling, his inability to write dialogue that sounds anything like real speech, and his reduction of the ever so distinctive Austin, Texas to a familiar “Malickian landscape…


…I wanted to criy out, “Horseshit!”


But that would have been unfair both to horses and to the fragrant deposits they are known to make.


I remain faithful to my son and proud of his insight, his remarkable critical intuition, but I have to say that I’ve once again lost faith in critics in general.


Time after time, they look upon a naked, fat, flabby old man and praise his new clothes.


Time after time, they look upon an empty landscape and miraculously discover a breathtaking skyline.


Number me with the little girl who tugged at her mother’s sleeve to protest the emperor’s lack of clothes and with Gertrude Stein who looked at the Oakland of her day and clearly saw that there was no there there.


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February 24th, 2017 5 Comments



I recently expressed my outraged astonishment at the great tidal wave of critical praise washing over a modest little mediocrity like La La Land.


Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what in heaven’s name could have inspired such adulation.


One answer that occurred to me is simple.


Look at the competition.


Many are darker than a moonless sky at midnight while La La Land is refreshingly bittersweet.


Many of the others are remarkably inept while Chazelle’s film is smooth and polished.


Take Manchester by the Sea.


(You take it. I, like Bartleby the Scrivener, prefer not to.)


Brilliantly acted, written and directed, graced by an amazing performance by Michelle Williams, it is also painfully slow.


In fact, it’s just downright painful.


Pain, pain and more pain.


Heaped upon a protagonist who will clearly never escape the crippling burden of his past.


I, like one of the few critics with his head screwed on, kept asking myself, “What did I do to deserve this?”


I finished it whistling “Suicide Is Painless” and had to be restrained from rummaging around in the garage for the rat poison I know to be out there somewhere.


Then there’s Moonlight.


Fluid camera work and direction, astonishing acting (take special note of the remarkable Mahershala Ali), and a faint note of hope at the end, but flawed by physical casting in the second of the film’s three parts.


The talented actor who plays the protagonist as a teenager looks less than nothing like “himself” as a boy or as an adult, completely undercutting the important moment late in the film when a friend from his earlier life miraculously achieves the impossible task of recognizing him.


And while I have boundless compassion for those trapped in the sewer of poverty, racism and drugs, I really don’t want to swim there with them.


After the double bill of Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight, I pulled myself up out of the slough of despond in which they had abandoned me (and, I suspect, most of the other members of their audiences) by watching That’s Entertainment, Parts One and Two.


It took the likes of Mickey and Judy, Fred and Ginger, Gene, Donald and Debbie (all of whom, unlike Ryan and Emma, could both sing and dance) to remind me that films are, first and foremost, entertainment.


Entertainment that can very occasionally, as it did under the inspired stewardship of Alfred Hitchcock and a handful of others, become art.


So there’s the one explanation for the immense critical popularity of La La Land.


It, unlike so much of the competition, is mildly entertaining and leaves you mildly uplifted rather than desperately wishing you could join Christopher Walken in his game of Russian roulette at the end of The Deer Hunter.


Then, of course, there is rest of the Oscar field.


Let’s see.




How did I loath it?


Let me count the ways.




Void of drama or any kind of characterization.


Full of pretense.


Utterly incomprehensible.




Some good performances in an ineptly filmed version of an overrated play.


Denzel Washington might have picked up a few hints on how to translate a work from theatre to screen by studying Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men or Long Day’s Journey into Night.


But he did not.


Nocturnal Animals


It begins with hideous nude shots of grotesquely fat women who turn out to be part of a performance art show at a gallery owned by Amy Adams. The nauseating show finally ends, and Amy goes home, where she starts to read a novel by her ex-husband, a novel in which the characters behave like teenaged idiots in a brainless horror film.


What possessed this enormously talented actress this year? After a long stream of great performances, she made two really bad choices, condemning herself to endlessly enter and exit, enter and exit, enter and exit an alien ship shaped like a seed pod…and then, in her other film, to be photographed passively reading a novel manuscript.


If you’ve ever wondered why they don’t make movies about writers, it’s because they don’t do anything you can see except scribble and type. It’s even worse with readers—they just sit and turn pages. What in heaven’s name was she thinking?




A tiresomely familiar structure—a reporter interviewing the film’s subject with flashback after flashback after flashback—and a star who underplays her role so determinedly that the only thing you notice is her Elmer Fudd accent.


So…explanation number two is that with the competition so weak, even a mediocre film looks great.




…and this is a very big but…




Why is La La Land getting so much attention while these remarkable movies are getting so little?


Florence Foster Jenkins


A masterpiece of a comedy starring one of the greatest of all film actresses, it had me laughing until I cried.


Do you know the story of writer/director George Seaton visiting his old friend actor Edmund Gwenn on his deathbed?


Seaton, who had directed Gwenn as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, asked him how he was doing, and Gwenn replied, “Dying is hard, George.” And then, after a perfectly timed pause, “But not as hard as comedy.”


Gwenn was right, but the Academy is traditionally loath to acknowledge that indisputable fact, and it’s unlikely to make an exception in the case of this remarkable comedy.


Hacksaw Ridge


One of the most realistic portraits of war ever put on film, possibly even surpassing the D-Day invasion at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan.


A masterwork from a master filmmaker built around extraordinary performances, not just from star Andrew Garfield (he was Spiderman, for God’s sake—who knew he could act?) and supporting actor Vince Vaughn (he’s a comic, a wedding crasher, right?) but from every member of the cast.


But Mel Gibson is still paying for that drunken meltdown years ago. Odds are the Academy isn’t ready to forgive him just yet.


Hidden Figures


A truly great film about three truly great black women.


Neither the movie nor its stars nor the women they portray have yet received their due.


My recommendation?


See it.


Tell your friends.


Then see it again.




…and keep your eyes open, once again, for Mahershala Ali and for a Kevin Costner you’ve never seen before.


Finally, there’s…


Hell or High Water


A brilliant portrait of life in today’s West Texas, one that helps the viewer understand the Trump phenomenon, but more important, it’s yet another moral drama from screenwriter Sheridan Taylor, scribe of the dazzlingly brilliant but ineptly titled Sicario.


Like the earlier film, Hell or High Water explores the question of what happens when an individual, driven by the best, most understandable of motives, crosses the line and finds himself engaged in dubious battle.


And it gives us yet another great performance from Jeff Bridges. I remember director Lamont Johnson telling me that when Bridges finished the photo booth scene in The Last American Hero, the entire crew burst into spontaneous applause. I did the same thing at the end of this remarkable film. He is nothing short of a wonder.


And I could say the same for the actress who plays the coffee shop waitress, the one who asks Bridges and his companion, “What don’t you want?” She makes this brief encounter a classic on the level of the famous “Hold the chicken” scene from Five Easy Pieces.


It’s my personal favorite of the four or five films worth seeing in 2016, but it came out in the spring, and the Academy’s memory is as short-lived as a mayfly.




…when it comes to the Academy Awards, we might as well join hands with the membership and sing “City of Stars” each of the fourteen times the cast and crew of La La Land dance awkwardly to the stage.

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February 21st, 2017 1 Comment




I made a terrible mistake the other night.


I know. I know.


It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?


After all, there’s virtually no precedent, but unlikely as it may seem, it’s true.


My inexcusable blunder?


I watched The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.




The blame rests solely on the shoulders of the critics who have welcomed La La Land as the Second Coming of Cinematic Art, bending their knees in worship of it, shouting hosannas to its beauty and originality.


“Soaring and gorgeous!

                   Vanity Fair

“A gorgeous romantic fever dream of a musical.”


“A film you simply never want to stop watching.”



The chorus is almost deafening, and it has been joined by other voices in other rooms–The Hollywood Foreign Press, The American Film Institute, The Directors Guild, The Producers Guild—virtually every professional organization in Hollywood, including the loudest voice of all…


…The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which bestowed an almost unprecedented fourteen nominations on this blessed production!


Now, as a member of The Writers Guild, I’ve long had a copy of La La Land in my hot little hand.


It arrived, courtesy of UPS, along with a dozen or so others from producers promoting their wares in their selfless quest for glory, box-office dollars, DVD sales and other ancillary income during the fall/winter award season.


I deliberately held off watching it out of my firm conviction that one should always save the best for last—a conviction that probably derives from my long career as a screenwriter: an acolyte of Syd Field, I invariably build to a climax at the end of each act and save the biggest, best bang of all for the end.


During this long period of self-imposed denial, I found myself reading more and more about the film and learned that its writer/director, Damien Chazelle, was a huge fan of Jacques Demy, that his favorite film was The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, that Demy’s masterpiece was, in many ways, the direct inspiration for La La Land.




…when I’d worked my way through all of the other Academy qualifiers, when I had left nothing but La La Land unseen, I did what any other red-blooded American film fanatic would do: I decided to watch The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as a prelude to my long-anticipated screening of La La Land.


I would watch the Demy film; I would then watch Chazelle’s homage; I would jump on the bandwagon celebrating La La Land.


(Note my clever reference to the classic MGM musical starring Fred Astaire, no slouch in the singing and dancing department, someone who could, I’m sure, have taught Chazelle and company a few important lessons.)


This strategy of deferred gratification was, as I announced at the beginning of this piece, a terrible mistake.


A catastrophic miscalculation.




Because from the moment it opens, Umbrellas is nothing short of magic!


It begins with a wide shot of the harbor, transforming this working-class military port into an impressionistic painting.


The camera, accompanied by Michel Legrand’s lush romantic score, pulls back to an overhead shot of a cobblestoned street—a checkerboard awash in rain and color as a rainbow of umbrellas begins to move across it in patterns as precise as the words of a crossword puzzle, their holders completely obscured by these dazzling canopies of cloth.




…the first of an endless succession of scenes in which everything—the sets, the props, the costumes—is presented in breathtaking color coordination.


In this case, the set is a common auto mechanics garage, and the dialogue—here and in every other sequence in the film—is sung rather than spoken, sung in spite of the utter commonplace of the sentiments expressed, sung to the accompaniment of that amazing Michel Legrand score.


The mundane is rendered magnificent.


The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is as artificial, as stylized as a film can be…and as real, as profound as life itself.


It begins with young love–at first yearning and hopeful, then bittersweet and heartbreaking.


It ends with mature love—an adult acceptance of reality in place of romance, responsibility in place of headlong passion.


And the performances!


Oh, my God!


The performances!


To single out one of many…let’s just say I will love Catherine Deneuve until my dying day.


Her charm.


Her intensity.


Her beauty.




Suffice it to say that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is one of the great, innovative masterworks of cinema.


It more than justifies Damien Chazelle’s enthusiasm for it.


And it unfortunately reveals La La Land for what it really is: a nice little imitation of a great original.


A derivative movie with a familiar, stereotypical plot, a mediocre score and a pair of stars who are good enough actors but simply cannot sing and cannot dance.


To paraphrase Fred Astaire…


They can’t dance. Don’t ask them.


More important: Don’t ask the critics anything about the movies.


They see through a glass very darkly and blow a lot of smoke when they should be clearing the air.



























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January 28th, 2015 5 Comments




Some years ago, I was sitting in the orchestra section of the Wiltern Theatre, pretending to ignore the barrel of the video camera aimed straight at my head.


The occasion?


The Cable Ace Awards.


The reason for my presence?


An HBO film called The Last Innocent Man.


It had received multiple nominations from the Cable Academy back in the days when cable programming was not yet eligible for Emmy consideration: Best Movie or Mini-Series, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, Best Art Design, and best of all…


…Best Writer.




So there I was…in heady company: Sammy Davis, Jr., Raymond Burr, Ted Turner, Billy Crystal, Hal Holbrooke, Larry King, Bernadette Peters, Rod Steiger, and many, many others.


I was there, and I was ready.


Speech rehearsed and memorized.


Looking relaxed but ready to spring up and bound to the stage.


The writing nominees are announced.


A pause for the opening of the envelope.


The camera moves in close on me.


And the winner is…


Ted Whitehead for The Life and Loves of a She-Devil.


Ted Whitehead?


For The Life and Loves of a She-Devil?


I’d obviously been robbed!


I erupted in silent indignation.


Did I consider the possibility that I hadn’t deserved the award?


Are you kidding me?


No, I was clearly the victim of shocking bias on the part of the Cable Academy.


They obviously had something against the small but significant minority I represent: former DePauw University Professors of English born in Pomona, California.


How did I know?


Not a single one of us had ever won an ACE Award!


I suffered similar disappointment some eight or ten years later when my NBC film, A Friend To Die For, was overlooked in the Emmy nominations.


It had received fabulous reviews.


It had attracted the largest television audience of any MOW aired that year.


And it had gone totally unrecognized by the members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences!


Oh, it had starred Tori Spelling, and the producer had refused to spend a dime promoting it during the awards season.


But what difference could that have made?


Once again, I’d been robbed!


Not only had my film been overlooked, but my heartbreaking work of staggering genius as “The Jogger” had also been ignored.


I’d opened and closed my movie in a silent turn so dazzling that every actor who undertakes such a role in the future will, I am sure, have to measure his performance against mine.


Never has an extra contributed so much to a motion picture and received so little in the way of recognition!


The Television Academy was obviously as biased as the Cable Academy.


If you looked at the record, there was only one conclusion possible: former DePauw University Professors of English from Pomona, California simply didn’t stand a chance.


Twice the victim of Hollywood’s institutionalized bias against me and my kind, I understand Al Sharpton’s fury at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s failure to nominate the star and the director of Selma in this year’s competition.


The only possible explanation for such oversights is, of course, unrepentant racism.


Never mind that the President of the Academy is Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a charming, talented black woman I had the pleasure to know back in my day at Paramount.


Never mind that last year, 12 Years a Slave received nine nominations from the racially biased Academy members and won Best Picture, Best Writing, and Best Supporting Actress.


Never mind that Paramount, the American distributor of Selma, failed to get the screener DVD’s out to the Screen Actors Guild and the Producers Guild in time to qualify for their awards.


Never mind that the film’s portrait of Lyndon Johnson has been challenged by distinguished historians and by actual participants in the events leading up to Selma and to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.


Never mind that Jake Gyllenhaal, who gave the performance of a lifetime in Nightcrawler, and that Amy Adams, whose portrayal of Margaret Keane in Big Eyes won the Golden Globe for Best Actress, were overlooked as well.


As for those who have made the preposterous suggestion that perhaps the members of the Academy simply didn’t feel director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo deserved nomination…well, that’s simply beneath contempt.


Then, of course, there are those who ask how the membership of the Academy could be racist in light of the fact that they did nominate Selma in the Best Picture category even though they overlooked the director and star.




Clearly nothing more than the Academy’s shameless attempt to cover-up its appalling bigotry.


No, Al Sharpton is right to call an emergency meeting of his Task Force on Diversity to consider action against the racist Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.


As the victim of obvious bias from both the Cable Academy and the Television Academy, I say to him, I share your pain.


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December 21st, 2014 2 Comments

wild-reese-witherspoonRon Woodruff is a scumbag.


The protagonist of Jean Marc-Vallée’s brilliant The Dallas Buyer’s Club, Woodruff is a heavy drinker, a chain-smoker, a cocaine abuser, an Alpha male homophobe who uses and discards women like toilet paper.


Cheryl Strayed is Woodruff’s female counterpart.


The protagonist of Vallée’s most recent film Wild, she uses her mother’s death as an excuse to engage in three or four years of self-indulgence, self-pity and self-destruction, betraying her supportive husband, engaging in one meaningless affair after another, ending up with a heroin addict and becoming a user herself.


Ron Woodruff, diagnosed with AIDS, redeems himself.


We watch, reluctantly at first, as he overcomes his homophobia, befriending a tortured transsexual who becomes his partner in his heroic attempt to override FDA regulations and bring the life-saving drug AZT to AIDS sufferers in America.


Cheryl Strayed, bottoming out, redeems herself as well.


She hits the Pacific Crest Trail, and by the end of her journey, she has overcome her grief and learned to care about other people.


Or so Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornsby tell us.


Woodruff earns his redemption in The Dallas Buyers Club. Vallee shows us the process, step by painful step, through Woodruff’s actions and interactions with other people.


Strayed simply asserts her redemption in the voice-over narrative that concludes the film.


What, you ask, about that extraordinary moment near the end when she encounters the old woman and the little boy named Kyle?


To those of you who haven’t yet seen the film, let me suggest you skip the next few sentences.


The moment in question is Cheryl’s meeting with Vera and five year-old Kyle.


The boy has been living with his mother on the streets of Portland, and Vera—a mere acquaintance—has, at his mother’s request, taken Kyle on a hike while she tries to get her life back on track.


Kyle is very upset with Vera for revealing his problems to a stranger, but he relaxes when Cheryl generously reveals that she too has had problems, and in response, he sings a song for her, a song his mother taught him. It’s “Red River Valley” rendered in a voice so pure and sweet it tears your heart apart.


It tears Cheryl’s apart as well and is the moment that makes the rest of the film worth sitting through, the moment when she actually sheds her self-pity, succeeds in seeing beyond her own problems, and shows sympathy for someone besides herself.


The problem is that nothing we’ve seen happen to Cheryl on the trail seems to have much connection to this moment.


It seems to come out of nowhere.


Oh, she’s been the beneficiary of the kindness of many others, but she’s been impervious to their example until now…just as she has been impervious to the shining example of her loving mother who knew that life is hard but also beautiful, who in spite of everything she’d gone through, greeted each day with gratitude and wonder.


It’s easy to see why Vallée wanted to make this movie. He’s clearly drawn to unlikeable characters who rise above themselves, and he does succeed in making Cheryl more accessible than the author herself did in her book.


Part of this is due to the remarkable work of Reese Witherspoon, who may well walk away with an Academy Award this spring.


Part of it is due to the bravura performance of Laura Dern—there are simply no words to describe what she does with the role of Cheryl’s mother.


And then there’s the amazing Evan O’Toole, who plays Kyle.


I ended up a reluctant admirer of much that this film has to offer even though its obsessive flashback structure rendered it uninvolving for me until the very end, even though I never managed to get past my distaste for Cheryl’s serial irresponsibility, even though I’m convinced she never earns her redemption.


My recommendation?


See it for its performances.


See it for its direction and extraordinary editing.


And keep your eyes open for Vallée’s next project.

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November 22nd, 2014 12 Comments


I’ve always loved movie robots.




Because they invariably have more character, more color, more interest than the hero of the story in which they play a supporting role.


My favorite, probably because he was my first, is Robbie—the real star of that fifties sci-fi classic, Forbidden Planet.


With a clear glass dome of a head that reveals the complex machinery of his mind, he moves in a metallic waddle and speaks in the voice of a butler, an old retainer with a special affection for the family he serves. Protective, accommodating, a master chef, he can replicate virtually anything, including the gallons of whiskey he produces in a wonderfully comic scene between him and one of the human actors.


He is also powerful, capable of lifting immense weights, and he is, at the same time, defensive weapon, constantly scanning for threats to family and friend and eliminating those threats with a dazzling ray that vaporizes its targets.


Best of all, Robbie is programmed against the killing of human beings. When ordered to kill, he freezes, a lightning storm erupting in his transparent head, a storm that will destroy him if the order is not rescinded.


And that makes Robbie superior to the human beings around him, all of whom have “monsters from the id” buried deep in their psyches, murderous impulses that can boil up to the surface and threaten the race itself.


Robbie is charming, colorful, complex—a wonderful character who takes us to the heart of Forbidden Planet and its insights into the human animal.


Then, of course, there’s HAL—by far the most interesting and fully developed character in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.


There are, I’m sure, those among you who will object—insisting that HAL is a computer, not a robot. I would argue that the ship sent to explore the origins of the metal monolith that seems to hold the key to the mystery of human life is a massive robot, that HAL is its brain and the ship is his body.


He manifests himself in his disturbing red light of an eye, in his resonate, reassuring voice, in his profound intelligence—the intelligence that makes the mission possible.


Respectful, formal but with just a hint of warmth, he addresses the crew members by their first names and seems almost eager to solve any problems that may develop.


But HAL is also proud, deceitful, manipulative, homicidal. When the crew catches this perfect machine in a serious error and decides it must decommission him, HAL sets out to destroy them.


Man has built his own irrational, destructive impulses into this machine, impulses that inform everything man creates—everything from the thigh bone he turned into his first tool, an instrument of death, to the nuclear satellite that it becomes in the greatest cut in the history of cinema.


The irony is that HAL is more human than those who created him, more moving certainly (“Daisy, Daisy…”) than astronaut Dave Bowman who seems almost machine-like in his lack of emotion.


Like Robbie, HAL is the most colorful, complex individual in the story, and his character takes us to the heart of the themes with which Kubrick is struggling.


This is the pattern of most sci-fi films involving robots.


Whether it’s Grot—the guardian of the heart machine in Metropolis, or Gort—who possesses the power to destroy the human race and the planet that begot it in the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, or the fuss-budget C3PO and the impetuous R2D2 in Star Wars, or the renegade Sonny who breaks the three laws in I, Robot…whether they are antagonists, confederates, or comic relief…robots have invariably been more interesting than the human characters of the stories in which they appear.


Until now.


Until the advent of that bloated, ridiculously over-praised, pretentious botch of a sci-fi film, Interstellar.


Christopher Nolan gives us two robots—TARS and CASE—to support the human crew of the movie’s mission to find a new home for the race of man. The one is indistinguishable from the other, so let’s concentrate on TARS, who plays the larger role in the story.


Imagine a gray metal slab not unlike the monolith in 2001. (I suggest imagining it to save yourself the ten or fifteen dollars and the three wasted hours it would require to see the film.)




More animated—in the sense that it moves and it talks.


In fact, it “walks” in a way that defies common sense if not the laws of physics, and it speaks in a voice so ordinary, so undistinguished, it could be the voice of any of us…except for the fact that I’ve never met anyone quite as boring as TARS.


It (I can’t bring myself to call it “him” even though it sounds male) is utterly without personality.


So then…


Is TARS, unlike its cinematic forebears, less interesting than the human characters in the story?


Unfortunately, no.


They, like him, are cyphers—generic figures at worst, simplistic types at best, defined only by the screen presence of the talented actors who play them.


And the other elements of the film?


The dialogue is endlessly expository, designed not to reveal character but to explain what’s going on, and failing abysmally in that task.


The science?


I suppose only the physicists and rocket scientists among us can judge it with any authority, but it strikes me as the worst kind of nonsense.


Solid clouds?


Space vehicles so indestructible that they can survive high-speed collision with these “clouds”?


Space stations large enough to accommodate the earth’s populace and lifted into orbit through gravity?


I could go on.


But instead, let me ask you this.


If you were looking for a new home for the human race, would you choose a planet in orbit around a black hole?


Then there’s the mawkishly developed theme of family—“love [that] transcends time and space.”




The astronaut hero deserts the daughter who loves him to seize the opportunity to return to space. (Saving the human race seems a secondary consideration.)


She, in turn, spends most of the rest of her life hating him for leaving.


The final third of the story becomes his attempt to return to her, and…






…and when he does, he spends no more than two minutes with her before flying off to rejoin the female member of his crew!


All of this is so inept that I find myself reconsidering my initial judgment.


It’s possible that I misjudged TARS.


It may be that he, for all his emptiness, is, after all, more interesting than the human characters in the story and that he, in fact, provides profound insight into the vacuum at the heart of Interstellar.




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November 5th, 2014 6 Comments



I’m a product of the Midwest.


Oh, I was born and raised in California, but my family has deep roots in Kansas.


My mother was from Plainville, pop. 1500.   My father, from Stockton—an even smaller town just a few miles to the north.


My fondest memories are of the summers I spent there in what my grandfather called “God’s country”—gently rolling hills clothed in fields of wheat, graced by ribbons of trees tracing the courses of rivers and streams, and every once in a while, a thick cluster of elms with a steeple, a grain elevator and a water tower pushing into the sky above.


If it was God’s country, it was also hard country—as hard as the God of the Old Testament, subject to flood and famine, drought and dust, blizzard and tornado.


It was hard country, and only hard people could survive it.


Two of my favorites were my Aunt Gwen and my Uncle Fat.


Fat…it sounds like an awful name but it wasn’t—it was an ironic, affectionate tribute to a man who was all sinew, muscle and bone.


Fat was a big man who’d spent so much time out in the sun that he gave new meaning to the phrase “red-neck.” He used to let me ride with him on his big red tractor across the fields of his farm outside of Stockton. He called me “Danny Boy,” and it was he, along with my grandfather, who introduced me to the outdoor life.


He’d tried life in California but couldn’t stand it. He turned his back on the easy living here in the Golden State and returned to Kansas, where he and my Aunt Gwen barely managed to eke out a living.


A unpainted three-room shack, an outhouse, two pumps in place of plumbing, and food that came mostly from the garden behind their home. By any reasonable standard, they were as poor as those proverbial church mice, but in my mind, they were rich—in their love for each other, for the land, for their way of life.


Aunt Gwen was a tiny woman—rail thin, maybe five feet tall, couldn’t have weighed a hundred pounds. Looked a lot like the wife in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” She took care of the garden and the hogs, who lived in fear of her! When my uncle came down with a terminal illness and began to waste away, this tiny person would hoist him up and move him wherever he needed to be.


Right after he passed away, they discovered oil on the farm. Suddenly they…I should say, she…was rich. Unable to maintain the farm by herself, she retained the mineral rights and moved to town. She shot her beloved dog Joe because she couldn’t bear the thought of him leashed, confined to a city lot instead of running free across the fields of the farm.


She was the strongest woman I’ve ever known, and he was the warmest, most generous man. They embodied the land—its beauty and its hardness.


What has any of this to do with David Dobkin’s film, The Judge?




Robert Duvall’s Joseph Palmer, we’re told, is a product of heartland Indiana. Known to everyone including his family as “Judge,” he is rock-hard in his belief in himself and in the old-fashioned values he enforces in his courtroom, among them respect for authority and acceptance of responsibility for one’s actions. For him, the law is nothing short of a moral code.


His son Hank (Robert Downey, Jr.) is his opposite. He’s exchanged the small town of his birth for the bright lights of the big city. Urban through and through, he’s glib, fast-talking criminal attorney whose moral code is as slippery as his tongue is smooth. He sees the law as something to be manipulated rather than enforced, and he’s manipulated it into massive amounts of money by putting guilty men back on the streets of Chicago.


The film opens with the death of his mother and his reluctant return to the town of his birth, where he soon finds himself defending the father who despises him, in a hit-and-run case that threatens to escalate to murder.


We follow him as he leaves the towers of the city for the open plains of Indiana—driving through a cornfield so flat, open and endless that we suspect it’s the product of some digital genius in the special effects department.

Eventually, he arrives in Carlinville, a stunningly beautiful village surrounded by heavily wooded hills, bisected by a fast-flowing river, graced by a double waterfall and a big covered bridge right in the heart of town. A place so picturesque you can’t look at without thinking, “Gosh, I’d love to live there.” After all, it has all the beauty of the country along with the upscale bars and charming shops of a city and none of the traffic.




I lived there for eight years outside a small town named Greencastle and I crisscrossed the state by car, but I never saw anything resembling this mythical Carlinville, which reminded me of Middlebury, Vermont and some of the other repackaged, upgraded mill towns of New England.


It was so disorienting and unreal that it kept taking me out the movie.


Worse than that, it made it almost impossible for me to believe that the Judge was a product of this place. He could easily have been a citizen of Plainville or Greencastle or Bruce Dern’s hometown in Nebraska, but he sure as hell couldn’t have come from this upscale Northeastern village (which a little research revealed is actually Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts!).


The choice of this location—the director thought it more “filmic” than anything to be found in the real Indiana—is a fraud, one of many the movie perpetrates on its audiences.


The director and his writers ask us to believe that Hank could urinate without consequence on his courtroom opponent in a Chicago trial, that the Judge would rather have an inept, farcical excuse of a local lawyer defend him in a life-and-death trial rather than his own brilliant son, that judges in Indiana are allowed to ignore conflict of interest statutes and preside over the trials of relatives, that…well, you get the picture.


There is everything wrong with this picture…everything except the acting. Hank is a role tailor-made for Downey, Jr., and he plays it so well he actually manages to uncover new aspects of his established persona. Duvall seems born to play the Judge—a comment one might make about virtually every diverse role he’s ever done. He is, quite simply, one of our greatest living actors.


Together, they make us care about father and son…in spite of the plot contrivances, the distracting subplots, the slow pace, the phony presentation of place. Thanks to the two Roberts and a remarkable supporting cast, the film has an emotional reality that transcends the fraudulence and contrivance of the narrative.


See this film.


My warm-hearted uncle, my tough-as-leather grandfather and my even tougher aunt might not recognize the Midwestern town of this movie, but I’m suspect they’d embrace Judge Joseph Palmer as a brother.


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