Wednesday, December 24, 2014

An Ordeal at Walmart in Farmingdale, NY

I ordered a toy Christmas train from Walmart to be picked up in-store. When my wife got to the store, they didn't have it and there were none left. I believe they sold our reserved item to someone else. No one ever apologized. Here's the full and detailed account:

On 18 December my husband and I ordered the North Pole Express 27-Piece Christmas Train. On the Walmart website it was listed as available for pickup in-store at the Farmingdale location on Long Island. It was also available in other Walmart locations, but Farmingdale was the closest to our house (a half hour drive). So we ordered it and paid by credit card. The next morning we received a confirmation email that the item was being held and ready to pick up. It also clearly stated that we had until 1 January to come for it.
On 22 December I drove to the Farmingdale store with a printed copy of the confirmation and handed it to the clerk. After several minutes of various employees searching and conferring with one another, he returned to me and stated plainly, “We don’t have any left.” I told him that’s not possible and unacceptable as I’d already paid for it and it should be held in reserve. The attitude of your staff member was that it wasn’t a big deal and little was done either to rectify the situation or even to express how strange, unfortunate, or beguiling it was that an item paid for and held in reserve was nowhere to be found.
When I expressed the urgency of the need to have this gift for my son only three days before Christmas, your staff member’s appalling response was, “If it was so urgent, why did you wait four days to come pick it up?” Let’s unpack this a little. In the first place, when I reserve and pay for something and am given two weeks to come claim it, it is none of your associates’ business why I wait a day, or two days, or even the full fourteen days to pick it up. That is my prerogative. I can only think of three possible things your associate was trying to imply with his insulting question: 1) That I was lying about the urgency involved; 2) That if I really wanted it, I should have come sooner; 3) That it’s common practice at Walmart to sell reserved and paid for items to other customers who are physically in the store in order to guarantee sale of the item. As it this weren’t enough, your associate asked me for the printed email confirmation after I’d given it to him upon my arrival and he’d taken it to go searching for the train. When I told him that he had the printed confirmation, he said he didn’t have it and didn’t know where it was. At this point your associate again stated that there were no trains left, with no apology, and offered, “I can refund your money if you want.” Huh? If I want? Did this man imagine any scenario in which I would be willing to let Walmart keep my money without giving me the product?
At this point I asked to speak to a manager. He radioed for a manager who never came. I asked again for a manager and again he called. Still no one came. The manager had to be called three times before anyone bothered to consider that this was a problem that should be dealt with immediately. A manager finally arrived after I’d waited close to fifteen minutes. I explained to the manager what the situation was. He told me he would check what happened and then disappeared behind a door. After an unreasonable amount of time had passed I asked the associate again to get the manager as I could not spend all afternoon waiting. I had a two-month old infant with me who was about to need a feeding. The associate, not satisfied I suppose with his first insulting question, said, “You’re not going to get a train. There are none left.” Someone should explain to him that restitution comes in many forms. In the end, a female associate came over. This was not a manager because she had been there the entire time. She said I would get a $20 gift card. I never saw the manager again. Not a single person ever even apologized for the mix up, confusion, error, or intentional sale to another customer. No one seemed to think this was a big deal or even worth treating with anything resembling sincere regret.
I would like to add that in the time I was waiting I listened to two other customers complain about Walmart customer service or general mix ups (neither of whom felt reasonably satisfied with your customer service department’s handling if their situations) and one customer who was listening to my situation and said the same thing had once happened to her. I believe this is standard Walmart practice. I think Walmart cynically sold my reserved item to a paying customer in-store rather than risk being stuck with a Christmas Train after Christmas if we didn’t pick it up.
There were so many points at which I could have been made to feel slightly better about this issue, or at the very least made to feel as if what happened is unacceptable and some form of compensation made. Refunding the money is not compensation. That is a given. A $20 gift card was an insult to the amount of driving I had to do (one hour round trip) and time wasted (two and a quarter hours in total) to come home empty-handed. This is all not to mention the level of annoyance I experienced through the whole thing.

Now let's see what happens from Walmart's end. This story brings this "Seinfeld" episode to mind:

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Die Hard Movie Review

I guess Die Hard has achieved something close to classic status by now. It’s a beloved action movie from the 80s (the heyday of big dumb action) with an up-and-coming movie star that spawned four sequels and a catch phrase. Taking another look at it I’ve found that it holds up well, but it’s certainly not great. It does just about everything right and hardly missteps until the very last scene, I’d say.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Classic Movie Review: King Kong

One of the great pleasures of revisiting the really old classics is to see how concise Hollywood storytelling used to be. Watching the original King Kong from 1933, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack and written by James Creelaman and Ruth Rose, I was amazed by how much adventure is packed into such a tight timeframe. It’s a little more than half the running time of Peter Jackson’s bloated remake from 2005, but their stories are virtually identical and most of the set pieces have the same basis.

The Babadook Movie Review

It might seem strange to recommend a horror movie as something that every parent should see and pay close attention to, but The Babadook, the feature debut from Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent, is a treatise on the aspects of parenting that people tend not to talk about. It is a sort of psychological horror film clearly inspired by and borrowing from Nosferatu as equally as The Exorcist, Halloween, and even A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Wild Movie Review

There are journeys where it’s the destination that matters. Then there are others where it’s the journey itself that defines the story and the character taking it. The latter kind is what makes for better films, in my opinion. In the new film Wild, a young woman hikes the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave desert in southern California to the Oregon-Washington border – a 1,100-mile walk. Along the way she recalls moments from her past that brought her to the decision to make this trek.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Pleasantville Movie Review

I reviewed Pleasantville in 1998 for The Connecticut College Voice, but upon revisiting the film recently, decided that a new review was in order.

It’s so nice to return to a sixteen year old movie that you thought at that time was very good and find that it remains just as interesting and just as powerful now as it was then. I put Pleasantville in my top ten for 1998 and am happy to discover that it will remain there. I think the salience of the messaging of Pleasantville has only increased with time. Sure, the TV landscape has changed considerably since then. The Prime Time schedule hardly dominates anymore. Every basic cable station and even streaming providers have gotten into original content production. But TV’s roots still stretch back to the 1950s and a schedule full of wholesome plots directing family values toward the American public.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

From My Collection: 25th Hour Movie Review

In 2002, New York City lay beaten and bruised, injured and left for dead but not without some bite left in her. Certainly the city was ready and willing to dole out punishment to anyone who intended harm again. It’s a lot like the dog Doyle at the opening of Spike Lee’s 25th Hour. Someone has abused him, but he lashes out at Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), who only wants to help. Monty takes Doyle in and when the story picks up a year later, the dog is reasonably normal while the city is still reeling from catastrophe.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

From My Collection: Rounders Movie Review

I reviewed this film sixteen years ago in the Connecticut College Voice. It is far too embarrassing to republish the original so in revisiting the film, here is my new and updated reviews.

For a brief time in the 90s and early 2000s, director John Dahl was establishing himself (in my estimation, at least) as a maker of dark and fascinating tales of low moral character or the underbelly of places we thought we knew. In 1998 he brought us, via a screenplay by David Levien and Brian Koppelman, to the underground and illegal poker scene of New York City in Rounders. He showed us a seedy version of New York that stands outside the realm of most Hollywood movies. And it’s populated with a cast of characters, most of whom you wouldn’t be too quick to invite into your home.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Fury Movie Review

The stalwart leader. The tough talker. The man of God. The wise-cracker. The fresh-faced innocent. These are the broad types you can find in just about every American war movie. There are others, but these are the five found in Fury, the latest WWII flick and probably the most memorable since Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Though it bears some resemblance to that tale of a squad of American soldiers behind enemy lines after D-Day, it falls somewhat short of both the storytelling and technical heights achieve by it. Fury also suffers the unfortunate fate of having to be compared to Band of Brothers, which set the bar so high for WWII movies, I’m not sure I can ever really enjoy another one.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Whiplash Movie Review

I had the great privilege for a short time in my life to be part of a musical ensemble that was led by a director who refused to settle for mediocrity. I don’t have any memories of him praising our work or telling us we performed well. Maybe he did sometimes, but that’s not what stands out. What remains in my mind about those four years was his sense of striving, his brow-beating us to work harder and achieve more, his sarcasm when we underperformed out of laziness or weariness. Some might think of him as somewhat abusive. There was no shortage of tears during the year and he was at times prone to inappropriately berating his students. And we were just kids, after all. But what we achieved musically, spiritually, and socially is something that has gone unmatched in my adult life. A lot of students came out of that experience encouraged to go on to music school. Some of them are professional musicians. They all have him to thank in at least some small part for it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

From My Collection: A Simple Plan Movie Review

My history with A Simple Plan is very special. In 1998 I had seen lots of excellent movies that I really admired, but had yet to find a perfect 10. On New Year’s Eve I saw three movies. One of them was Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, a movie I didn’t have any significant expectations for outside of being interested in Billy Bob Thornton and the premise of the film: three ordinary men find a bag full of money. What should they do with it? It was probably about halfway to two thirds of the way through when I had a realization that the film was on its way to my standard of perfection if only it could avoid any third act missteps. And then it made it. It arrived to the end and Scott B. Smith, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel, had made all the right choices and I stood in awe of this minor little film that was simply astounding.

Modern Classic Movie Review: Aladdin

It had been a very long time since I’d last seen Disney’s Aladdin. I was inspired to take another look at it because of the tragically too soon death of Robin Williams a few months ago. I’m not sure there’s any other Disney animated film that leans so heavily on the voice talent of one particular actor the way Aladdin does. That’s not to say it has nothing else going for it, but Williams’ voice work as the genie is so memorable, it’s hard not to think of the film as a Robin Williams vehicle rather than one in  long and proud tradition of animated feature films.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Nightcrawler Movie Review

I always admired Jake Gyllenhaal’s talent as an actor. His performance in Prisoners demonstrated a real step up in his game, after which I realized he had even more to offer. But now he stars as Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler, which features a Gyllenhaal performance that blew me away like I didn’t think possible. That’s pretty impressive considering his body of work.

We first see Bloom at night, concealed in darkness. He’s clipping the metal chain link of a fence. A security guard stops him. He maintains a friendly, though slightly awkward interaction with the guard. We think he might be able to talk his way out of the situation when suddenly he attacks. Next he’s driving along, the back of his truck loaded with scrap metal, including the chain link, and his wrist bearing the watch that he spied on the guard. The minor violence of the scene leaves such an impression because this young man comes across as so unassuming and physically harmless.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Primary Colors Movie Review

As an obvious companion piece to Wag the Dog, which I revisited recently, I decided to take another look at Primary Colors, the 1998 film based on a novel that was an embellished and somewhat fictionalized version of Bill Clinton’s first primary campaign for the presidency. Wag the Dog was a year earlier, but both strike at the heart of late 90s political climate, albeit in very different ways. The first film has, in man way, improved with age, while Primary Colors has become a bit more dated. Wag the Dog remains more relevant today than does Primary Colors. That’s not the fault of director Mike Nichols or Elaine May, who adapted the screenplay (and scored an Oscar nomination, I should point out), but it is a fact that can’t be avoided in any updated conversation about the movie.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Summer of Sam Movie Review

I can’t say with any certainty what it was like to live through the summer of 1977 in New York City because I wasn’t born yet, but Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam tries to capture it, or at least some stylized and possibly fantasy version of it. It was one of the hottest summers ever in the city with temperatures soaring above 100 degrees, leading to brown-outs and an eventual blackout. There was a serial killer on the prowl, gunning people down as they sat in their cars at night. Lee’s movie makes it seem like all the killings happened during those few months, but in reality they started a year earlier and were well spread out chronologically with only a couple of the shootings occurring that summer, although Lee includes recreations of nearly all of them scattered throughout the film.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

From My Collection: Miller's Crossing

The extent to which I thoroughly enjoy and absolutely love Miller’s Crossing can hardly be put into words. It is by far my favorite Coen brothers film even if I don’t think it their greatest achievement. But I get a thrill every time I watch it, and that’s about ten or a dozen times over a period of nearly twenty years. I think Miller’s Crossing arrived on my radar at a particularly impressionable time in my development as a cinephile. It was pre-Fargo and so prior to the Coens being almost household names. I was also just very recently enamored with Quentin Tarantino, although had yet to discover Sam Raimi. I don’t even think I knew about the Coens as filmmakers yet. Raising Arizona had played on TV and I’d seen it, but I had no idea who was responsible. There was no IMDb in my world yet.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The World According to Garp Movie Review

I have so many memories from my childhood of my mother watching The World According to Garp that I think there must have been a stretch of time when it was on TV nearly every day. I thought it a bizarre movie then and I find it a bizarre movie now. George Roy Hill directed this adaptation of John Irving’s novel, which I’ve never read. But I won’t let that prevent me from speculating on something I’d be willing to bet the book does that the movie fails to.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Wag the Dog Movie Review

In 1997 there was no YouTube, no Facebook, no Twitter. There were message boards, email, websites, maybe some very early blogs, but the dissemination of information and access to reports, accounts, and testimonials, for all that we thought at the time was lightning fast, was nothing compared to today. This thought occurred to me while revisiting Wag the Dog, Barry Levinson’s seventeen-year old film about an invented war fed to the media to distract the public from a Presidential sex scandal two weeks before he hopes to be reelected. In it, Robert De Niro plays Conrad Brean, a kind of independently contracted fixer brought into the White House by Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) to help clean up the mess and potential fallout once the story breaks. So Conrad enlists the help of Stanly Motss (Dustin Hoffman), a big Hollywood producer, to put the pieces in place to sell not just a war, but a whole package and all the emotions and patriotic fervor that come with it, to the public.

Monday, September 1, 2014

From My Collection: A Beautiful Mind Movie Review

The Academy has a great history of awarding the Best Picture Oscar to a generally lifeless, inoffensive work of mediocrity. I can hardly say that A Beautiful Mind is not a good movie (I regrettably put it on my top ten list for 2001), but it certainly isn’t great. It’s not even particularly memorable except in its simplistic depiction of mental illness.

I can’t say with any certainty to what degree John Nash suffered with schizophrenia or how it manifested itself, but I do know that the way Akiva Goldsman incorporates it into his screenplay, based on the biography by Sylvia Nasar, seems almost preposterous, designed specifically to aid the unsubtle viewer in understanding what Nash was going through. I guess I shouldn’t fault the movie for trying to reach a broader audience, but nor should we assume that it has anything new or interesting to say on the subject.

From My Collection: Good Will Hunting Movie Review

Good Will Hunting was the first in a series of roles Robin Williams took that became increasingly dark, subversive, and at times questioning the very nature of our existence. It’s easy to see patterns in retrospect and ascribe meaning to them, but I remember it being clear at the time that Williams seemed intent on making a serious mark as a dramatic actor in a range of parts in (often) independent films. The years following Good Will Hunting saw him chase his suicidal wife into limbo as his character negotiated his own afterlife in What Dreams May Come. Later he was the villain in both One Hour Photo and Insomnia. But a lot of that seems to point right back to Gus Van Sant’s 1997 film penned by the wunderkinds Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Of course the Oscar Williams finally won likely helped earn him more interesting offers and afforded him greater freedom to take risks. But without Sean Maguire, the widowed psychiatrist who helps the title character find himself, he might have continued making more of Hook and Mrs. Doubtfire.

Key Largo Movie Review

Lauren Bacall wasn’t a great actress. This much I’ve learned from watching the four films she made with Humphrey Bogart. But she was a great movie star. She had tremendous screen presence and could practically make the tough Bogart roll over and beg. In Key Largo, their final film together, although I didn’t tally the minutes, I would venture to say they share more screen time than in any other of their previous three outings.

Key Largo was based on a now obscure stage play by Maxwell Anderson about a WWII veteran who runs afoul of a once-notorious mafia kingpin while passing through the Florida Keys and spending time with the family of a slain war buddy. The action is very dialogue heavy, a lot of it indoors in various settings around a hotel mostly closed for the off season. It’s not the most expressive film for a John Huston-directed picture, but he makes the most out of the cramped settings.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Classic Movie Review: To Have and Have Not

Warer Bros. struck gold with Casablanca in 1942 and their blatant attempt to recapitalize on that success came in the form of To Have and Have Not in 1944. It was very loosely based on the Hemingway novel of the same name and bears far more resemblance to the tale of a defiantly neutral anti-hero eking out a loving in Vichy Morocco during WWII than it does to Hemingway’s tale of a tough fisherman in Cuba running contraband to Key West. The Howard Hawks film transplants the story to Vichy Martinique and has Bogart’s Harry Morgan frequent a nightclub with a friendly piano player (played by Hoagy Carmichael) and then brings in a dame, Maria Browning, played by Lauren Bacall in her first screen appearance and first of four alongside her future husband.

Like Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca, Harry tries not to take sides for or against the Vichy government. He’s a man trying to make a living until he is pulled into a deal that has him actively aiding rebels fighting against Vichy. The parallels to Casablanca are so remarkable I can’t believe it’s considered an adaptation of Hemingway’s work rather than Curtiz’s film. There’s a Captain Renard, a police inspector played by Dan Seymour, whom you can almost hear announcing, “Round up the usual suspects.”

One significant, though unnecessary, addition is Harry’s fishing boat partner, a comically bumbling alcoholic played wonderfully by Walter Brennan. Were it not for the history-making pairing of two legendary movie stars who generate some fiery on screen chemistry with the aid of fantastic and sizzling line penned by William Faulkner and Jules Furthman, there wouldn’t be much left here to call classic. To Have and Have Not should have been relegated to Hollywood’s dustbin except that Bacall made such a huge impact on the film’s director and star. Together they impacted the world and became forever solidified in the public consciousness as one of the great Hollywood couples.

Dark Passage Movie Review

Did women’s voices mature earlier in the 40s? Why, when we watch actresses in their early twenties from that period, do they sound like grown women, but today’s young actresses sound like little girls? is there something in our culture today that values infantilizing girls so that they intuitively maintain their immature squeaky whiny tones? Perhaps the question answers itself. Or maybe it’s nothing so deep and dramatic. Maybe actresses then received formal theatrical training like singers to develop their voices. Whatever it is, Lauren Bacall had one of the great all-time sexy mature female voices, even at twenty-two, when she starred in only her fourth feature, and third with Humphrey Bogart, Dark Passage.

Classic Movie Review: The Big Sleep

There’s a legend about the making of The Big Sleep that the filmmakers contacted author Raymond Chandler to ask who had killed the chauffeur in his Philip Marlowe detective tale. He replied that he had no idea. The story, true or not, illustrates the mind-bendingly complex plotting of this classic film noir that has enough plot twists, double crosses, and murders to fill three or four movies.

Humphrey Bogart is Marlowe, the private detective hired by the wealthy patriarch of the Sternwood family to deal with a blackmail scheme involving Carmen (Martha Vickers), the younger of his two daughters. Vivian Rutledge, the elder daughter played by Lauren Bacall, involves herself, setting off a tension-filled relationship between her and Marlow for the remainder of the film. To try to recount the plot or even the basic story would result in a senseless explanation. As directed by Howard Hawks, The Big Sleep is an exercise in style. This is one of the great classic noirs, though it does lack a number of the genres hallmarks.

The Expendables 3 Movie Review

Sylvester Stallone has spent the last eight years not so much trying for career renaissance, but to relive the glory days of his (relative) youth. Honestly, he wasn’t even that young when he was a major 80s box office draw. he has made new sequels to the Rocky and Rambo franchises, a boxing movie with De Niro that plays on their respective most iconic roles, and the Expendables franchise which is both tongue-in-cheek about the way it tries to relive the glory days of 80s action movie heroism and sort of serious in its attempt to be a modern action franchise. I’ll just put it out there that I really enjoyed the first film. It had some great playfulness, some killer action sequences and hand-to-hand fight scenes (especially those involving Jason Statham), and a great period appropriate villain and theme with Eric Roberts operating in Latin America as a kingpin. Our neighbors to the south served as the great action locations and source of villainy during the decade of cocaine. The Expendables was a welcome respite from the settings of Arab countries and former Soviet republics.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Fisher King Movie Review

Although The Fisher King is definitely much more of a Terry Gilliam film than a Robin Williams show, I’d never seen it before and so took the unfortunate occasion of Williams’ death to watch and review it. I say it’s a Gilliam film, but thtat’s based almost entirely on the visual style. The story elements contain themes that continually come up in Gilliam’s films such as the age-old conflict between good and evil. But in the character of Parry, a homeless ex-college professor suffering traumatic delusions owing to the witnessing of the brutal murder of his wife, it also becomes, in retrospect, a great Robin Williams vehicle.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Good Morning, Vietnam Movie Review

To watch Good Morning, Vietnam is to see Robin Williams at his best, at the top of his game. There’s a reason he earned his first Oscar nomination playing Adrian Cronauer, an Armed Forces Radio DJ who takes a transfer from his cushy post in Greece to Saigon during the war – or Conflict as it is referred to in the movie as in the military and political arenas of the 1960s.

Magic in the Moonlight Movie Review

Jack English
There may not be a filmmaker more grounded in realism who also frequently touches on elements of magical realism than Woody Allen. Here is a man who has a strong philosophical view of life, death, and existence, who seems resigned to the idea that what you see is what you get and that there is no deity or afterlife. Here is a man who dabbled in magic tricks as a boy and who grew up to become one of the late 20th century’s most important and prolific generators of the greatest magic tricks of all – motion pictures. For what are the movies but an illusion? Not only are the stories told fictional tales through which we, the audience, have a chance to live out fantasy wish fulfillment, but the physical process of film projection is a series of still photographs presented in such rapid succession that it gives the illusion of movement.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Robin Williams: 1951 - 2014

Most of us will never have any idea what kind of pain Robin Williams was in. We look at a suicide like that and many of us have the instinct to ask, "What did he have to be so unhappy about?" He had an incredibly successful TV, movie, and stand-up comedy career and could have had many more year to add to it. But to think that way is to miss entirely what depression is. Depression is not about what's going on in your life, although there can certainly be triggers. It's an inner turmoil and a lack of a coping mechanism. Williams also suffered from addiction, at various times to cocaine and alcohol, which is either a symptom of or a contributing factor to his depression.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Most Wanted Man Movie Review

Roadside Attractions
Master spy novelist John le Carré’s novels have been adapted into films several times. One, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was made twice, the more recent of which may go down as one of the great spy thrillers. Now comes A Most Wanted Man, based on his 2008 novel, which is on the same plane, if not as deeply intricate and taut as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The film, directed by Anton Corbijn and adapted by Andrew Bovell, is a brilliant exercise in restraint. Unlike Corbijn’s last film, The American, it has a great deal of forward momentum, generates real suspense, and is not nearly as opaque. And make no mistake about it – A Most Wanted Man is profoundly and subtly critical of American foreign policy with regard to the war on terror.

Le Week-End Movie Review

I wonder if there re more long-time married couples who grate on each other’s nerves almost constantly than ones who, in that clichéd way, still love each other like they did when they first got married. I think I’ve lways been cynical about this, but it seems nearly impossible to spend thirty-plus years with someone, with all the compromise, dreams deferred, and just plain putting up with minor irritations that eventually balloon into major offenses, without building up a foundation weakened by resentments (however big or small) and displeasure. These couples do tend to make for more interesting drama anyway. In Le Week-End, a British couple whose children are grown and recently departed take an anniversary trip to Paris where they last visited for their honeymoon. Though it’s not explicitly expressed, this seems to be a trip designed for relationship revitalization. But ny two people who have been at each other’s throats for as many years as they have are likely to continue the practice on a weekend getaway.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Boyhood Movie Review

Matt Lankes/IFC Films
As far as process in art goes, it’s not often something we consider in movies. When it comes to painting and sculpture, the methods and materials used are often integral to the finished product. More than that, it is often essential whether an artist has produced from a subject or the extents of his own imagination. Narrative filmmaking and the criticism thereof usually focuses on the finished product without much consideration for how the director arrived there. This is, I suppose, because actual production times on movies – not including the script writing process – is usually fairly standard without a great deal of variation, taking no more than a few weeks to a couple of months. But now there is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a movie that demands attention to the method behind the process. Because Linklater made the film over a period of twelve years, gathering the same actors together for several days once a year to chronicle the growing up process of Mason Evans (played through a dozen years by Ellar Coltrane), we have little choice but to examine how that method makes Boyhood different from any other movie that takes place over a long period of time.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Life Itself Movie Review

I remember when I first aspired to a be a film critic back in college, my feelings about Siskel and Ebert centered on annoyance that critical opinions on cinema could be reduced to a few minutes of a TV segment and a binary “Thumbs Up” or “Thumbs Down” decision. They were hacks, I thought, and had no place in real discussion of criticism. At some point, however, I began to watch clips from their show for the entertainment value of their arguments. Eventually I started actually reading Ebert’s reviews.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Everything I Saw in the First Half of 2014

This year it has been much harder for me to get to the movie and even to watch movies at home than during any other time in my life. Having a three and a half year old child certainly doesn't make movie-going any easier. It's actually gotten harder as he is more demanding about the attention I give him and he goes to bed later than he used to. So during an evening when I'm home, he might go to bed as late as nine o'clock. Often by that time there are no shows left. Even if there were, I've lost the stamina for late movies. That is due mainly to a new job I started in November. Not only do I have a nearly two hour commute in each direction, but a dinner shift in my restaurant means the earliest I get home on a weeknight is just about 1:30. On the weekend I'm often home at about 3:30 am. A lunch shift means I have to be up around 7. So any evening that I'm not working, I've either been up since 7 after sleeping, at best, six hours, but sometimes as little as four, or I have to be up at 7 the next morning and so I don't really want to get home from a movie after midnight.

I watched 80 feature films, but only 77 different ones as two were repeats and one was with DVD commentary. As compared to the same period last year, that's seven films down or only three down if you count only different films within the six months.

Of the 77 different films I saw, 58 were films I had never seen before, which is a huge jump over last year's 46. I spent more time on repeat viewing last year. I saw twenty-two films in the cinema, which is actually only two down from last year. So that's a bit surprising.

Of course there were also the Oscar-nominated short films. So I saw a total of sixteen short films, fifteen of those in the cinema. And as for TV episodes, I got through all ten episodes of "Band of Brothers" again as well as the seven episodes (twice for one of them) of this year's "Mad Men" season.

I also posted 56 new reviews (40 full length) for films seen in the first six months. That's exactly what I managed in the first six months of last year, but this year I was slightly ahead on the full length versus short cut review breakdown.

Wow! After adding up the numbers it appears as if I'm just about on par with last year even though it feels like I've done far less. Interesting observation. Let's see what happens in the next six months (or next five as I'm writing this a month too late).

So here's the list of everything I watched (TV episodes and movies, though not counting an occasional "Seinfeld" episode on late night TV). Included, as I've done the last couple of years, is the date I watched and the format for the viewing.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

From My Collection: Ghost World Movie Review

It’s sort of a rite of passage of being a teenager that you think you’ve got the world figured out, have everyone’s number, and believe your own views to be absolutely right. I suppose it takes most people until sometime in early adulthood to realize that you didn’t know half of what you thought you did when you were seventeen. Some teenagers (I might have been one of them) take it a step further and believe there is an authentic way of living and that just about everyone walking this earth is a big phony. Think Holden Caulfield. It should suggest something important that he was my hero at fifteen and then a sad tragedy at thirty.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

From My Collection: Garden State Movie Review

I really liked Garden State ten years ago. At the time I was still very much into a certain indie sensibility that rejected the mainstream for its own sake and expressed the ennui of being in your mid-20s and without direction, feeling like your parents’ completely screwed you up. Over the years as I thought about the movie – and I’ve begun thinking about it more recently because it’s ten years old and Zach Braff’s follow-up has finally arrived in cinemas – I thought of it as annoyingly precious, too perfect in its indie romantic sensibility. But watching it again I found it really holds up well. I was remembering it all wrong. Braff is a romantic softy at heart and the sappy feel-good ending is a little tacked on in the interest of living out some romantic fantasy, but all in all, Garden State works.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Classic Movie Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

My memory of watching The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly the first time was that it was long and good, but felt more like work than enjoyment. Fifteen years later my view is completely different. This is a masterful piece of filmmaking, a movie that plays with genre expectations and is humorous, violently playful, serious, and all-around entertaining. I’m not sure what didn’t strike me about it the first time.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

25 Years Ago This Month: July 1989

Lethal Weapon 2 was the big release of the month, a sequel to the successful buddy cop film starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. The sequel added Joe Pesci for some truly annoying extra comic relief, but continued to tackle important topical issues. This time it was South African apartheid. Basically Riggs and Murtagh get to take down the racist institution all on their own. Or at least the criminal diplomat in Los Angeles running a major drug ring.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Classic Movie Review: The Magnificent Seven

There are great parallels between the 19th century American West with its lawlessness, gunslingers, and vigilante justice and feudal Japan and its share of samurai warriors. Codes of honor are similar as are the general sense of open and unconquered land, small villages vulnerable to the strength of an oppressor, simple farmers trying to scrape by. The Japanese samurai films of the fifties borrowed and lifted tropes from the American western genre. Then a funny thing happened and the westerns started mimicking the samurai films. Seven Samurai was and still is one of the greatest of its kind. It was popular (as much as foreign films could be popular at the time) in the U.S. and it was ripe for picking by a Hollywood studio. And so the 1960 semi-classic The Magnificent Seven came to fruition.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars Movie Review

From the writers of (500) Days of Summer I expected much better in a romance film involving two teenage cancer patients. The Fault in Our Stars, directed by Josh Boone, is not cloying or mawkish, but it is oh so precious – relentlessly so. It is constantly aware of how perfect a movie it’s so desperately trying to be. I can even sort of tell from this movie that the source novel is likely similarly insistent on its sense of perfection in its characters and plotting.

The story is narrated by Hazel (Shailene Woodley), a seventeen-year old with stage four cancer that has left her with a lung ailment that demands twenty-four hour attention from an oxygen tank. Woodley is a talented actress whom I have greatly admired and here she really holds the movie together. Without her performance, exuding youth along with naturalism and a realistic outlook on her situation that you wouldn’t expect from a girl her age, the movie doesn’t work. But Marc Webb’s and Scott Neustadter’s screenplay pushes too hard on those buttons that make Hazel seem too intelligent, too over it, too cynical to go in for the platitudes and clichés associated with her disease.

Classic Movie Review: Airplane!

It’s been many years since I watched Airplane, that crazy comedy film from the ZAZ team of Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, and David Zucker. They mastered the art of goofball parody comedy and made my youth more enjoyable than it otherwise would have been. Airplane was the one that started it all. It’s possible to point to John Landis and Kentucky Fried Movie, but that’s more akin to sketch comedy – a bunch of funny ideas loosely tossed together around a larger centerpiece parody of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. But as an outright genre parody, Airplane set the bar, a bar that unfortunately has been lowered as the years have gone on.

The Immigrant Movie Review

The Statue of Liberty has always stood as a beacon of hope, welcoming immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, promising the start of what has been billed as “The American Dream.” The allure of America is often much stronger and much bigger than the reality of most immigrant experiences. The Godfather Part II uses that image to signal the beginning of the rise of the Corleone crime family, one partially realized promise of the American Dream. Vito wanted his son to be a legitimate businessman, but once ensconced in that world of crime, Michael finds it increasingly difficult to extricate himself. The Corleone family success crumbles to pieces by the end of that movie, Michael sitting alone, full of money and power, but bereft of family connection.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Black Hawk Down Movie Review

As I rewatched Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down for the first time I more than a decade, two other war Berchtesgaden more than a year later. The similarities are numerous. Both are based on books that attempted to recount, in as much factual detail as possible, the events surrounding are large contingent of American soldiers in conflict. Both were released toward the end of 2001, coinciding with post-9/11 American jingoism. Both focus heavily on the responsibility soldiers in combat feel toward each other more than to the ideology or politics behind the war. And both unflinchingly portray some of the horrors and carnage of war. The other is the more recent Lone Survivor, whose primary focus is on the fact of soldiers in harm’s way pulling for each other. The latter film has faced criticism for being a form of war porn, which you could also say to some extent about Scott’s film. But I think the positives to take away from all three far outweigh any negative observations regarding the depiction of blood and guts in battle scenarios.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Everyone Says I Love You Movie Review

Woody Allen’s career has been a lengthy string of annual hits or misses. Part of what makes him so compelling a filmmaker is how he dives right in and commits himself even to the ones that aren’t so great, just to keep himself working and putting out new material every year. His movies have a way of changing over time – for me at least – so that The Purple Rose of Cairo seemed a lesser effort, a whimsical throwaway, when I was twenty, but when I revisited it at about thirty-one, there was greatness I had missed. Sometimes it goes the other way, as with Everyone Says I Love You, which I liked a lot more seventeen years ago than I did the other day.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Palo Alto Movie Review

To grow up in a filmmaking family and be constantly surrounded by people who make it their life’s work to tell stories through motion pictures must cause you to absorb the techniques so that you end up with intuition through osmosis. The patriarch Francis Ford Coppola went to film school to learn his trade and honed his skills while making some of the great classics of American cinema. His knowledge passed to his daughter Sofia, who has made some excellent films herself. Other members of the extended family have had success as actors, writers, and producers. Now comes Gia Coppola, granddaughter to Francis, and niece to Sofia, with her directorial debut Palo Alto, which she adapted from James Franco’s story series of the same name.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

25 Years Ago This Month: June 1989

So in 1988, I believe I saw only two films in the cinema. I quadrupled that number in 1989, two of them arriving to theaters in June of that year. I can't say for sure I saw them right away, but most likely pretty quickly after my school year ended. Remember when superhero movie franchises began once a decade? Superman in 1978, followed by Batman eleven years later, and then Spider Man thirteen years after that? Then after that it just didn't stop. Now there's a new one about every month.

The biggest release of the year, and box office king of 1989, was the Tim Burton-directed Batman starring the unlikely Michael Keaton as the caped crusader and Jack Nicholson as The Joker. Kim Basinger, being a big star at the time, was cast as reporter Vicki Vale, the journalist with the alliterative name who is not Lois Lane. Nicholson was perfectly cast as the maniacal villain and no one could have imagined a better performance of the part until Heath Ledger. Everyone was suspicious, and rightly so, of Keaton as the hero. He was known for his comic roles and he had recently been great in the title role in Burton's Beetlejuice, but I always liked him in the part. I like his aloofness, his ability to deliver the comic lines without coming down on them too hard, and then be serious behind the mask.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Criterion #33: Nanook of the North

directed by Robert J. Flaherty
English inter-titles
79 minutes

The second earliest film in the Criterion Collection is Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North. It dates from a time when motion pictures had hardly drawn clear lines about what documentary filmmaking was. In the early days, every film was a document and then storytellers got involved. Certainly the Eskimo Nanook and his family are real people who lived in Canada on Hudson Bay, and it was understood at the time that Flaherty had captured actual moments from their life (although we know now that some scenes were staged). In that respect, Nanook of the North is widely viewed as birthing the documentary genre, setting the groundwork for other filmmakers who wished to tell the stories of actual people.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Silent Classic Movie Review: The Thief of Bagdad

Douglas Fairbanks was the original big screen cinematic swashbuckler. By the time he starred in and co-wrote The Thief of Bagdad – which is perhaps his greatest achievement – he had already played Robin Hood, D’Artagnan, and Zorro. To play a title character in a story from the 1,001 Arabian Nights was just icing on the cake. Two years ago I enjoyed Fairbanks in Robin Hood along with live musical accompaniment. At the time, I thought that movie was an impressive feat of sets, action, and stunts, but then The Thief of Bagdad, quite frankly, dwarfs it in scope.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Like Water for Chocolate Movie Review

Movies that age badly are fascinating to me. What to make of a movie that was well-regarded more than two decades ago upon its release, part of the Weinsteins’ Miramax success blitz in the 90s, and even garnered some middling awards attention, but left me scratching my head in wonderment at how anyone in their right mind ever thought this was a good movie. There are movies I don’t like that get lots of good critical attention where I can at least understand what people have fallen for. In the case of Como agua para chocolate – or Like Water for Chocolate in English – it struck me as more than just failing to appeal to my taste, but flat out bad filmmaking on a nearly objectively technical level.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

From My Collection: Brokeback Mountain Movie Review

I read “The New Yorker” magazine with some regularity. Each issue has a short story included that I usually start, but don’t finish. They rarely grab hold of me. But I went back and took a look at E. Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” which first appeared in October 1997. It is an absolutely brilliant example of economy of story and character development. She squeezes more information into a single line of dialogue than other writers can get onto a page and fifty times the words. She won an O. Henry award for the story.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Classic Movie Review: Duck Soup

The best comedy is anarchic. It defies rules and conventions. If it’s truly superb, it creates new ones. The Marx Brothers were just such a comedy team. Their best films date from the early years of sound. Their act depended on, in addition to great sight gags, spoken dialogue and quips. Groucho, whose visage of a thick painted-on mustache and eyebrows and those signature glasses is one of the most famous in the history of movies, rivaling only Chaplin’s Tramp, provides the great zingers. His performance depends on his flawless delivery of double entendres and bawdy comments. Chico had the persona of an Italian immigrant, speaking quickly in a thick accent. Harpo was, of course, silent, except when he played the harp in some films. They started as a vaudeville troupe, performing music, dance, and comedy numbers on stages across America. The advent of synchronized sound in motion pictures brought them the lucrative contract with Paramount to make movies as well as the chance to reach an even wider audience.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Classic Movie Review from My Collection: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

A strange alien ship sits in a forest clearing. Small brown creatures rustle around in the brush. In 1982, anyone who’d seen a commercial or trailer for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial knew the story. But keeping in mind that when movies are written, filmed, and edited there is usually no concept of the marketing campaign to come, one might have surmised through this opening that it was Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We all know the story now and it’s far from it. The two films are hardly even kindred spirits, so different are they in tone and execution.