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Dan's Movie and Literary Hangout

Updated on July 2, 2014

The Bard

Can't get enough of this fellow.
Can't get enough of this fellow.

The following movie reviews are meant as a guide for picking out the right DVD/Blu-ray rental. Each year Hollywood releases hundreds of new films, most of them forgettable and disappear, but a few manage to beat the odds and stand out. Yes, there are still good movies being made, stories with substance.

In addition, there are the classics, ones worth watching a second time. I favor drama, action, romance, comedy, and science fiction.

Each week another review will be posted.

I plan on a book review hub in the not too distance future. I'm an English major and still feel the thrill of a well told story - believe there's something special about entering that magical world of literature.

I may, if the mood moves me, even post some of my own creative muses. If you have an idea or a project worth commenting, shoot me a message. At the bottom of this page there's a box for your comments.

Thanks for visiting.




A science fiction movie can be highly entertaining, but that doesn't always translate into broad acceptance. Too often the opposite happens. Science fiction pushes the boundaries of believability and there's no connectivity to the audience. The movie Solaris, however, makes that connection.

George Clooney stars in the 2002 remake directed by Steven Soderbergh. Clooney plays a psychologist, Dr. Chris Kelvin, who on earth is surrounded by people, but shuns all contact. When a plea comes from the troubled Solaris space station for Kelvin's help, the doctor is soon in an environment best suited for his self-imposed isolation.

On the space station, Kelvin experiences a strange phenomena, replicas, visitors who look and act just like humans. Through multiple flash-backs, we learn about the doctor's background, how he's on a conclusion course with his estranged past. Philosophical questions arise in Solaris: Are these replicas too human for us to accept? How much more advanced are they than us? Would they threaten us if brought back to earth? And, are we making the right choices as humans? These are excellent questions.

Along with producer James Cameron, Soderbergh pulls off a convincing tale. They make a good pair. There's no pyrotechnics, no laser beams, no battles with other life forms. Soderbergh employs spares filming techniques, with an interesting love twist at the end.

The Solaris movie poster, however, doesn't live up to a well told story. George Clooney in a space helmet just doesn't cut it. A picture of the space station with the planet Solaris in the background, showing a possible collision of two worlds, would have had better appeal. Nevertheless, Solaris is a fun film to rent.


Source: IMBD
Source: IMBD

Solitary Man

Knowing his character inside and out, Michael Douglas turns in a first rate performance in Solitary Man. Douglas plays the lovable rascal, Ben Kalmen, the aging businessman who can still deliver the goods. And, what a renowned career he's had, having instant recognition in NYC wherever he goes. He even made the cover of Forbes Magazine and has his name emblazoned on a library.

Like many businessmen, something derails them when they approach their mid-fifties. It's a tale of riches to rags, someone who walks on the clouds, then falls into the gutter. Kalmen's success is in being full-throttled, damn the torpedoes type of businessman.

Watching this film and listening to the commentaries, one has to wonder why everyone missed the connection to Babbitt, a novel by Sinclair Lewis. The story of George Babbitt is written all over the Ben Kalmen character. There are many similarities. Ben Kalmen, like George Babbitt, is a well recognized business leader, both have laser-like visions of what to do and how to do it, but unfortunately that vision is tainted. And both have crises later in life and are shunned by seemingly the good friends they made along the way - so much for business loyalty. If Brian Koppelman, writer and director, had drawn on Babbitt, his story would had more pathos. Even Ethan Coen, who hails from the same state of as Lewis (Minnesota), and who helped out with editing, apparently missed this connection too.

Kudos to Koppelman regardless. He worked on this script for more than four years, and deserves credit for well thought-out characters. He has an ear for vibrant dialogue. He and fellow director David Levien filmed this movie in less than 30 days. Solitary Man raises interesting questions for those who find themselves on the edge of retirement and wondering if life has passed them by. When the gray hairs come, can a person still make meaningful changes and find their true calling, or are they just too old?

It's an ageless question.

A lot of notable actors make appearances: Susan Sarandon, Mary-Louise Parker, Danny DeVito, Jenna Fischer, Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg. Solitary Man is a good film to rent, especially for those in the twilight of their lives.


The Company

Like all of his previous films, The Company, directed by Robert Altman moves in a non-Hollywood fashion. But that's Altman, always taking a different direction than his fellow directors.

The Company is like a documentary, the story focuses on a group of professional dancers, the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.The plot, if there is one, looks at the day in the life of the Joffrey Ballet, or maybe in Altman's case, several days in that life. Altman focuses on the essence of what a dancer goes through. Nothing is spared. In fact Altman relishes the nitty-gritty details. We witness the disputes, hear the groans and pounding of feet on harden floors, see the sores, the tumbles, and the pain shadowing a dancer's face. Most dancers only make it to their mid-thirties before their bodies call it quits, but dedicated they are, putting up with sub-par living conditions, all united in the love of their art.

Robert Altman knows how to juxtapose these hardships along moments of beauty. A little over 80 minutes into the film, we see someone practicing a swinging dance from a strap supported from a ceiling. This scene turns magical. Shot from different angles, this dancer twirls as if in an interstellar realm, her feet just grazing the floor, seeming to defy gravity, along with a flowing white dress than fluctuates between shades of blue, in-between colors, and then having a bright after glow. The music only adds to the mood; we hear a singer accompanied by a slow haunting guitar. Everything has a mesmerizing quality.This is Altman at his best.

Neve Campbell and James Franco round out the story with their own symbolic, funny valentine dance. The art director, Malcolm McDowell barks at and applauds the dancers, but none of them compete with the spirit of the film. They know their roles. The Company was the second in the last of Altman's career. The last one, The Prairie Home Companion, doesn't have that same feel, not as cohesive as the The Company. This is a good film to rent, especially for that magical dance scene.




Seabiscuit is a period film. The story takes place in the Great Depression, a time in America many would like to forget. It was a time of transition. Rural life styles were vanishing, and the small farm could no longer compete. People were moving to the industrial centers, poverty exploding in the cities; a new mechanization was taking over. Everybody saw the coming of the automobile. People were unsure of their futures.

In the 1930s people were down on their luck and scared.

Along came Seabiscuit, a race horse written off at birth. Seabiscuit was the black sheep of the family, small, scrawny, and a disappointment to its owners. The horse's legs looked odd and didn't fit the image of a thorough bred. By the time he was three, he ran only in the claim races, the lowest rung in horse racing, then used to train other racers. There are a lot of anger issues in this film, Seabiscuit being no exception.

But that all changed by 1938. In the news outlets, Hitler was the third most read about, Franklin D.Roosevelt second and Seabiscuit first. With a new owner, the right trainer and jockey, Seabiscut was given a second chance and succeeded. It all came down to a race of the decade, maybe of the century: Seabiscuit verses Man-of-War. The hype leading up to this race had a third of the country listening. Seabiscuit was a rallying call for all those who'd been hurt by the uncertain times. Until this match, Man-of-War had only been beaten once in 21 races. The statistics favored him. The race between these two vastly different horses is the climax of the movie.

Seabiscuit is a true story written by Laura Hillerbrand. She did an excellent job, understands this tale in sundry ways with many sub-texts. The story strikes a chord, and the three protagonists, Charles Howard (owner) played by Jeff Bridges, Tobe Maquire as Red Pollard (jockey), and Tom Smith (trainer) played by Chris Cooper, all turn in great performances. The director, Gary Ross, who also wrote the screenplay, knows how to push the emotional buttons.There's nothing wrong with that, but the real star of this film is Seabiscuit.



Roman Holiday

"Hepburn was way above us."

Putting together a blockbuster movie is a collaborative affair. A well written script is a must, a proven director indispensable, and bankable stars essential. Then throw in a never filmed location and you have the ingredients for a blockbuster. Roman Holiday has it all.

Roman Holiday is the tale of a rebellious young princess who runs away in the city of Rome. On a tour of Europe, her mundane duties overwhelm her. Hiding her true identity she escapes and spends the day with a handsome American newspaperman.

The story was written by Dalton Trumbo, a highly esteemed screenwriter, blacklisted by the McCarthy hearings, but later redeemed by the Writer's Guild (Trumbo's name was initially removed from the credits but added back in film restoration). By 1953 William Wyler, the director and producer, had proven himself in Hollywood and didn't fear the Congressional hearings. By the end of his career, he'd won five Oscars for Best Director.

In the 1950s rarely would Hollywood finance a film outside their cloistered studios. Wyler had the pull and what we see is the unique character of Rome itself. If anything, the city actually enhances the story. Rome is filled with history. One can't miss the Coliseums, the water ways, and the street vendors hacking their wares. There were only a few cars in this period, but many scooters seen zipping through the streets. It adds to the chemistry.

At that time, Gregory Peck was a well recognized actor. He plays the American newspaperman, Joe Bradley, and has that quiet nobility and natural good looks. Audiences identified with him. But the real star of this film is Audrey Hepburn, the rebellious Princess Ann. Virtually unknown at the time, Audrey stands out in ways other movie stars don't. "Heburn was way above us," says Eddy Albert, who plays Peck's newspaper photographer, "she wasn't Hollywood at all." Hepburn won an Academy Award for Best Actress in this film. After Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn's star rose, and appeared in a string a movie successes (Breakfast at Tiffany's, My Fair Lady), then used her fame to promote humanitarian causes.

Realizing the treasure Audrey Hepburn was during shooting, Peck talked to Wyler and movie executives, insisted that Hepburn receive top billing. She went on to become a fashion icon. She was one of a kind, a screen legend.




Wisdom argues against staging a rat as the protagonist. It flies against every societal norm one can think of. Yet societal norms aren't always right.

Ratatouille was the eighth feature in Pixar's string of successes. The film has a strange set of characters: Remy the Rat, with an unusual sense of smell, who dreams of becoming a chef like his hero Gusteau, the Master Chef of Paris. Gusteau, unfortunately, no longer runs his restaurant. And, there's Linguini, a kitchen helper, who doesn't realize he's Gusteau's son. Remy and Linguini form an odd, but workable friendship. Every story needs an antagonist and we see Skinner, Gusteau's replacement, a shrimp in more ways than one, conniving for ultimate control of Gusteau's restaurant. Skinner, a money grubbing scoundrel, is willing to sell out Gusteau in any form to make a buck.

A proven formula: The stronger the foe, the better the film.

In development since 2001, Disney asked Brad Bird in 2005 to take over as director and finish the screenplay. Disney made a good choice. Bird goes to great length to reach that special moment, a strategy that works especially well in animation. We see examples of it as Remy longingly gazes at Paris, or when Anton Ego, the restaurant critic, savors a mouth-watering meal.

Peter O'Toole plays Anto Ego with surety. Janeane Garafalo likewise is convincing as Colette Tatou, the only woman in Skinner's kitchen. Like all of the other chefs, she leaves when she learns the one behind Linguini's mastery of culinary delights is actually a rat. But, she's the only one who reverses herself - comes back for the crucial night - Gusteau's reputation as a chef - will it survive?

Colette is also Linguini's love interest.

To his credit, Bird visited Paris for inspiration. He also apprenticed at Thomas Keller's "French Laundry" back in the USA, all which gives Ratatouille a special flavor, no pun intended. This film went on to win an Academy for Best Animated Feature in 2007.

Bon appetite.



Pride and Prejudice

One Story: Two Versions

Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice is a gem worth checking out. Which film the viewer prefers depends, as so often in life, on the individual's taste. The BBC set, two DVDs, is more loyal to the Austen vision, but it's over five hours long. Whereas the Universal Picture movie is only two hours, but definitely has its moments.

The BBC serial, directed by Simon Langton, has Jennifer Ehle as the venerable Elizabeth Bennet, and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. Both actors bring that something special to their roles. Ehle is seen as having a spirited intelligence, and perhaps the highlight of the entire film, the lake scene with Firth, originally meant as an amusing moment, turns into a suggestiveness. Each segment is 55 minutes long for a total of six episodes, thus breaking them up and watching one or two per night is highly doable. Because the screenplay is loyal to the Austen period, some viewers may have to acclimate themselves to the phrases of that time. No one should feel embarrassed; many actors had the same problem. The BBC production went on to rave reviews. There's even a Jane Austen fan club in Japan. Pride and Prejudice won the highly covenanted BAFTA Award.

The more recent adaption came out in 2005 staring Kiera Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet. She makes a good anchor in which other actors spin off from. Matthew Macfayden plays Mr. Dracy, an unknown at the time. Joe Wright (who later directed Atonement and The Soloist), the director, along with the screen writer, Deborah Moggach, wanted their rendition to go in a different direction than the 1995 version. There are more rural scenes; one feels the acute poverty of the Bennet family. Wright and Moggach also placed the time for their Pride and Prejudice in the late eighteenth century, adding another distinction. Judi Dench and Donald Sutherland make quick but notable appearances.

The 2005 production didn't receive the same praise as the 1995 version, although Knightley definitely appeals to a younger audience. She's still viewed as Elizabeth Bennet to many. If purity is a priority, than rent the 1995 BBC serial. Either one is fine, or you could buy the Austen novel. Her books still sell well.



Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth belongs on the high alter of elite movies. Since its release in 2006 there are thousands of films that have come and gone, and only a hand full can match its brilliance.

The story revolves around Ofelia, the young protagonist who sees two worlds opening up before her. One takes place in Spain during its brutal civil war of the 1940s, and the other in the spiritual world, where the promise of untold beauty lays before her.

Pan's Labyrinth was directed by Guilermo del Toro who knows how to texture his movie - at the cross-roads of political extremes, battles between good and evil, brutality verses innocence, disobedience verses conformity, and fantasy from master story tellers. The first few minutes of this film were the most difficult for del Toro; he agonized over it for months, loosing weight and going without sleep. Once he pictured Ofelia's wound reversing itself, healing - he knew he had come full circle in bringing his story together.

Del Toro believes we should see children as if they are ambassadors of a higher culture. Up to a certain age, they have the perfect personality and thus we should be learning from them, not the other way around. Del Toro doesn't like dialog, prefers to tell his story in pictures. The viewer sees this with contrasting shots, having purer colors in the mystical world verses the horror images of the fascist world. People were starving in Spain in the 1940s; we see the psychopath Captain Vidal feasting on an abundance of food while his soldiers hand out smidgens to the poor. The same scenario is repeated when Ofelia enters the chamber of the Pale Man, the faceless monster, like a fascist dictator, who has more food before than it will ever need. This scene is scary. During a viewing, del Guilermo sat next to Stephen King and witnessed him squirming at the sight of the Pale Man.

That says a lot.

Over 130 film critics were recommending Pan's Labyrinth within a year. It was nominated for six academies and won three. Then it reached numerous top ten film lists of the decade. The movie had a small budget, and was co-produced which gave Guilermo del Toro fits. Nevertheless, he put together a masterpiece. The viewer can't go wrong in renting Pan's Labyrinth for a second or a third time.

You Tube: Pan's Labyrinth




Greenberg is a good movie to rent. It's one of those niche films many critics liked, but for various reasons most didn't give it a full endorsement.

Most reviewers skipped over the theme of Greenberg entirely. Its essence is: What if a gifted yet troubled song writer, who was on the threshold of greatness, but inexplicably threw it all away? Ben Stiller plays that troubled song writer, Roger Greenberg, in one of his more unusual roles. There's an element of silent desperation running throughout the film.

At 40, Greenberg still has that creative spark. He's just suffered a nervous breakdown and wants to recuperate. He's back in LA after a hiatus in NYC to watch his brother's home for six weeks, but still prone to emotional outburst, aimed mostly at the hapless dog watcher, Florence, played by Greta Gerwig. Except for a small carpentry job, Roger intends to do nothing for a while. He walks practically everywhere. But the past is not far behind, seen in former disgruntled band members who are still angry at him for not signing the record deal.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Noah Baumbach wrote the screenplay. Although too many of list, there are numerous outstanding lines: "It's weird aging, right? Youth is wasted on the young. Life is wasted on people. Hurt people hurt people." And when the middle-aged Greenberg is sitting among a group of teenagers, a generation of television addicts cursed with ADD, he can't help but quip, "I hope I die before I end up meeting any of you in a job interview." It's in these moments we see the artist spilling forth. Baumbach has a knack for outstanding dialog. It makes one wonder if he's hit his full stride yet.

In the end, though, there are no flashes of epiphany, no signs of what Greenberg should do next. He seems to realize that life goes on, regardless of all its pitfalls. If you enjoy reflective films, then Greenberg is for you.



One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

In 1975 One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was a must-see movie. It received the Academy's top five awards. The last film to do that, It Happen One Night, a 1934 film, made One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest a forty-one year wait.

Written in 1960 by Ken Kesey, Kirk Douglas bought the rights but couldn't find the right director. On a tour of Eastern Europe for the State Department Douglas met Milos Forman in Prague and knew he'd found the right person, but a customs official in Czechoslovakia wouldn't let the book through. Throughout the 1960s production languished, hitting one snafu after another. The film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest almost never came to be.

By the 1970s, Kirk turned production over to his son Michael. In New York, Michael met Milos Forman, but neither realized who the other was at first. They agreed, financing secured and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was finally in the works.

The wait was worth it. A popular theme for Mr. Kesey was in fighting conformity. In the 1960s, a justifiable battle was going on with the establishment. There were protests against the war in Vietnam, civil rights legislation hotly debated - the peace movement intricately mixed in that turmoil. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest could be looked at as a microcosm of all that conflict.

R.P. McMurthy, played by Jack Nicolson, was that free spirit fighting conformity. Always insisting on respect for the establishment was Nurse Ratched, played by Louise Fetcher. The other each's worse nightmare. Not every one agreed with accolades the movie received. Some said that Forman made too many concessions from his earlier works. The film didn't open with a lot of promise - had to be pushed by studio executives for extended stays at the theaters.

But the film caught on.

Known for his realism, Haskell Wexler was the cinematographer and later won two Academies. A young Danny DeVito, with hair on top, is hardly recognizable by today's standards. Christopher Lloyd adds his own brand of wackiness. Looking back, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest may have had its flaws, but can never be faulted for its spirit. It's needed more than ever.



Separate Lies

Separate Lies is one of those non-main stream films easy to miss, but don't! Released in 2005, it's an adaption of the novel, A Way Through the Wood by Nigel Balchin, originally published in 1951.

The movie opens in an idyllic English environment: A man bikes along a trail. In another shot we see a smartly dressed barrister (James Manning played by Tom Wilkenson) coming out of his upper class home and kissing his wife (Emily Watson plays Anne Manning) good-bye before faithfully going off to work.

But that idyllic environment changes when that same bicyclist is killed by a vehicle in a hit-and-run accident. All that peace and security begins to unravel. Within the first ten minutes, we see life for Anne is anything but a bed of roses. She can't do anything right. James piles restrictions on everything she does. In Jame's eyes, Anne is an inadequate wife.

Complicating this arrangement Anne has an on-going secret affair with a neighbor, Bill Bule (Rubert Everett cast as Bill Bule). James, Anne and Bill socialize in the same circles. Suspecting this Ménage à Trois has something to do with the hit and run, the police investigate, try to crack this wall of "friendship." James, Bill and Anne are all lowered a notch. As pressure mounts, the lies grow, more complications - an awkward pack for this most unlikely trio. "What a tangled web [they] weave."

All the characters are flawed. By the end, everyone is tired - tired of the guilt, tired of lying, and tired of the life of pretend. No one wins and in a way the viewer ends up rooting for everyone. Julian Fellowes wrote the screenplay and directed Separate Lies, his directorial debut. John Neville, the great Shakespearean actor from the 1950s, makes an appearance.

All these actors bring an economy to their roles. Separate Lies is a well thought out story, maybe not with a happy ending, but an acceptable one.




HANNA is a Joe Wright film, maybe not his best but definitely worth renting. Instructed by her father in the wilderness of Finland, Hanna can speak several languages. Nevertheless, in this film parents will always fail their children. No matter how well moms and dads plan, they will missed some crucial element in a child's upbringing.

From the start, the Grimm's fairy tales are injected as the motif. The Grimm's fairy tales are discussed at length between Hanna (played by Saoirse Ronnan) and her father, Erik Heller (Eric Bana), ex-CIA agent. And for those who are unfamiliar, the Grimm's fairy tales can have dark overtones. Disney won't like it, fairy tale or not, but life does not always end happily ever after. In a chase that starts in Finland, jumps to Morocco, then crosses Europe into Germany, the film's boundaries are stretched.

The CIA is the antagonist, the dark force in this film. Everywhere there are multiple police forces, so many they're overlapping in scope. The CIA tops that list. Cate Blanchett as Marissa Wiegler, CIA operative, plays that antagonist brilliantly. She carefully choices the right shoes, picks out a green pair, which psychologically is the least attractive, just like a wicked witch. We watch her brush her teeth with so much vigor they start to bleed. The viewer get the feeling she likes the taste of blood. In a shoot-out with Heller, we see a sadistic grin on her face.

HANNA started with a Grimm's fairy tale and ends at an abandoned theme park in Germany, where so happens, there's a Grimm cottage. Here Hanna learns more about her linage, and why Marissa and the CIA are so interested in her.

In the end there's a show down between Hanna and Marissa, who now realizes she's gone too far, too many dead bodies connected to the CIA, tries to reach out to Hanna, and atone for her past mistakes. With her father dead, Hanna has maturated and is no fool.

The Chemical Brothers add a mesmerizing beat. Joe Wright shows an interesting twist in the development of a young girl in the modern world.




Hugo is a Martin Scorsese film. Now in his 70s, Scorsese's creative roots come from another era. As a boy he loved going to the cinema and watching all the films most of us have forgotten about. This love was his training ground; he immersed himself in it, seeing subtleties in shots most people miss. There are less than a handful of directors like him.

Hugo takes place in Paris during the 1930s. It's a story of boy growing up in the unusual environment of a train station, secreted away and watching the movement of the travelers. Hugo Cabret (played by Asa Bufferfield) is enthralled by an automaton brought home by his father (Jude Law), a watch maker. The automaton has fallen into the wrong hands and needs repairs. But when the father dies, Hugo is left alone to fix it. Without a parent, Hugo fears he'll be thrown into an orphanage.

An uneasy alliance is formed between Hugo and George Melies (Ben Kingsley) a toy merchant in the train station. Soon though, a friendship blossoms between Melies's goddaughter, Isabelle (Choe Maretz) and Hugo. He shows her the automaton, now working with a special key that belongs to her. The mechanical man gives them a message: the famous picture of "Shoot the Moon (rocket ship hitting the moon's eye)," but neither of them are sure what to make of it.

Scorsese puts an amazing amount of work into each shot.This movie is his calling card. In Hugo Scorsese builds his story angle by angle, scene by scene. The viewer sees industrial size gears, coils, springs, and huge pendulums swinging, adding a vibrancy to the movie. There's a certain magic to it. Martin Scorsese believes in the dream quality of a film.

In the end, we realize that Hollywood wasn't the birthplace of cinema. In its infancy, France had the edge in this amazing new art form. George Melies was one of those pioneers, a magician bringing special effects - dreams to the screen. Hugo is a tribute to the cinema. Scorsese honors Melies and those early pioneers, establishing a tradition that lives to this day. For Martin Scorsese, it's an integral part of who he is.



Fried Green Tomatoes

Behind every good story are engaging characters. And behind an engaging character is a unique story. Each part comes back and supports the other. Good tales have a lasting power. The director of Fried Green Tomatoes, Jon Avnet, studied Joseph Cambell's Power of Myth. Cambell tells us some stories never die. We see examples of this in the people we meet, social events, in our hopes, loves and struggles. Good stories are immortal.

Fried Green Tomatoes starts off in Alabama in 1920 where we're introduced to Idgie (played by Mary Stuart Masteron). In the next scene she sees her brother killed by a train, haunting her for years. Eventually, with the companionship of Ruth (played by Mary-Louise Parker), Idgie overcomes her depression and develops a lifelong friendship with Ruth. Soon, the two are working at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

The film jumps to the 1980s where Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates) meet Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy) in a nursing home. The time breaks in this film are unfortunately clumsy. Right away the viewer sees Evelyn as having self-esteem issues; she's married to a sports-crazed husband who to sit in front of the television eating his manufactured dinners. Ninny helps Evelyn though, gives her encouragement. Ninny tells Evelyn the story of Idgie and Ruth. Evelyn is not aware of Ninny's full posterity until later on.

The story of Fried Green Tomatoes was not an easy sell. Hollywood executives weren't interested. Word was that it would never have broad audience appeal. The first screen writer, Carol Sobieski, wrote an ineffective draft. The original author, Fannie Flagg, took over but quit after 70 pages. Jon Avent then spent the next two and half years polishing it, finally completing a powerful story.

Finally Avent got Norman Lear to back it.

Fried Green Tomatoes' appeal is manifold. One can think of Fried Green Tomatoes as a southern story. In the 1920s people were unemployed and hungry. Fried Green Tomatoes is a tale of spousal abuses, of race relations, of food prompts, especially unique southern food such as fried green tomatoes. It's a story that never dies.



Wonder Boys

What happens to a person who's had instant artistic success, but for the life of him can't repeat it? So many artists don't have a clear conception of how they pulled off their masterpieces in the first place. The world is filled with one hit wonders, or in this film, a wonder boy.

Grady Tripp, played by Michael Douglas, is such a wonder boy. He wrote an amazing first novel, "Arsenic's Daughter," but that was seven years ago. He thinks he's about to repeat that success with his second novel, grinding away and now at 2,611 pages long, all singled spaced. Meanwhile, he's been self-medicating himself with pot and somehow managing to teach creating writing at a local college. Tripp sees a promising young student, James Leer (Tobey Maquire), in his writing class. James has a lot of talent and a lot of skeletons in the closet. Just about everyone hates hims. He's emotionally unbalanced, not good in social events, and seems to have an unhealthy obsession with celebrity suicides.

There's a pregnant college chancellor, a desperate New York editor and a dead dog adding to the film's shenanigans, all of which complicate Tripp's world. The other actors, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr and Katie Holmes all turn in great performances.

The director, Curtis Hanson, was fascinated by the Wonder Boys script. Written by Steve Kloves, he knows how to tie down the disparate set of characters into a convincing tale. Taking the novel, "Wonder Boys," (same title and written by Michael Chabon) Kloves does an excellent job of adapting it for the screen. A good script, although only a fraction of a novel, is exceedingly difficult to pull off. Hanson believes a good screen play is the heart of a movie. He couldn't be more right.

Then, there's the theme song, "Things Have Changed," written and performed by Bob Dylan. As things look today, "Things Have Changed" appears to be Dylan's last commercial success. His song complements the film - plays well with its spirit.

Through all the turmoil, a stolen car, fainting spells, Tripp finally comes to terms with his past, gives up the dope, loses his teaching position but rediscovers himself and is writing effectively again. Wonder Boys is a fun film to rent.



The Manchurian Candidate

If you're trying to persuade a friend to do something which is contrary to his beliefs, try a different tactic and scare him instead. Instill fear and you'll probably be more successful. The military and legal systems play on people's fears. The insurance companies are masters at it, and politicians jump on it at every opportunity to push their agenda and get re-elected.

Fear is the backbone of The Manchurian Candidate.

The concept of instilling fear was a product of the Korean War. It scared the living daylights out of the foot soldiers. The Manchurian Candidate starts with a platoon of GIs captured during a routine patrol and somehow end up at a ladies garden party, or are they? Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) was at that party but can't remember, along with Sergeant Raymond Shaw (played by Laurence Harvey). The platoon is brought back to Allied territory and all the GIs are convinced of Sergeant Shaw's heroism. Soon, he's awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Shaw comes home to a media blitz, and immediately his mother, Eleanor and stepfather, Senator Iselin, capitalize on Sergeant Shaw's newfound notoriety. Senator Iselin thereafter parades about shouting that there are 275 card-carrying communists (the numbers keep changing) in the State Department. His inflammatory remarks scare the public. Of course, another election is approaching and such ploys will undoubtedly help. The real brains, however, behind Senator Iselin is Eleanor, played by Angela Lansbury.

The height of hypocrisy is reached when it is learned that Eleanor actually works for the communists as a secret agent. The communist will kill anyone who stands in their way.

In 1962 this film generated a lot of controversy. Over the years much has been written about it. Hiding behind a mask, instilling fear, brainwashing an opponent has become even more common-place today. So many in the media sound like game show hosts. Television chameleons are paid fabulous sums to look pretty and sell their propaganda. We don't know who's telling the truth any more. The Manchurian Candidate give you a lot to think about.



The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Swedish Version

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the first story in the "Millennium" trilogy. And what a series it is. As of 2011, over 65 million books had been sold world wide. The film adaption did even better, skyrocketed in popularity, achieving the highest financial success of any Swedish film ever. The numbers speak for themselves.

Journalist Karl Steig Larsson, author of "Millennium" trilogy, died tragically in 2004. His novels were published posthumously.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo starts with the trial of Mikael Blomkvist (played by Michael Nyquist), editor of the Millennium magazine, the last independent media source in Sweden. He's been convicted of libel and ordered to pay hefty fines, then faces a three month jail sentence. But a wealthy industrialist, Henrik Vanger, wants an investigation into his niece's disappearance, Harriet Vanger. Henrik is convinced Harriet was murdered. She hasn't been seen for 40 years, and Henrik wants closure before he dies. He tells Mikael he'll be a wealthy man when finished with his investigation. Although the Vangers are a powerful clan, Mikael soon learns they are dysfunctional, interested in the Vanger fortune, and some with extremists political views. Bomkvist enlists the brilliant computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), to help with the investigation.

Mikael and Lisbeth work well together. Lisbeth has hunches that point in the right direction. Unfortunately, Lisbeth has a troubled past - has experienced unspeakable violence. She is also an extremely private person. Prominent members of society continually thwart her. Lisbeth identifies with Harriet Vanger. As Lisbeth and Mikael dig deeper into the Vanger past, a shocking truth is revealed.

Stay tuned for the second review in Steig Larsson's trilogy: The Girl Who Played With Fire.



The Girl Who Played With Fire

Second story in Steig Larsson "Millennium" trilogy

In the second installment of Steig Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire, Mikael Blookvist (Michael Nyquist) is back running his controversial magazine again. Many inquire about Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), but she hasn't been seen for ages. Most speculate that she's no longer in Sweden.

At a Millennium meeting, the magazine staff agrees to hire a freelance journalist. He has a good story he's been working on for years. It involves human trafficking, the marketing of women, mostly Eastern Europeans along with a few Asians as prostitutes. They have no standing in society. Some of the "Johns" are ranking members of the Swedish government, including a judge, a prosecutor, several in the police department, members of the legislature, lawyers and businessmen. Soon, though, the freelancer and his girlfriend are brutally murdered. Unfortunately, Lisbeth Salander's fingerprints are on the gun, and combined with her troubled past the evidence looks bad.

Making matters worse, a prominent lawyer, Lisbeth's guardian and the one who controls her finances, is soon found dead. Now Lisbeth is wanted for triple murder.

Mikael Blomkvist and a few confidants are the only ones who believe in Lisbeth's innocence. Mikael and Lisbeth start an investigation into the facts, although independent of each other. The trail leads to Lisbeth's father, a mysterious person who shuns exposure and has a dubious background. As the story progresses, so does the truth, revealing government secrets, nepotism, implicating highly placed members in Swedish society.

Stay tuned for the last installment of Steig Larsson's trilogy: The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest.


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The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest

Steig Larsson's third story of trilogy

In the final installment of Steig Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the intrigue just keeps getting better. After a brutal showdown with her father, Lisbeth Salander is flown to a hospital and undergoes emergency surgery. Three bullets are removed from her body; one of them from her skull. She's in shock, beaten, but still conscious.

The threats continue against Lisbeth. After one assassination fails, plans are made to silence her by locking her in a mental hospital. Although not totally sure who, the hospital suddenly realizes she needs protection. Mikael Blomkvist starts to investigate, finds out about a rogue agency, a secret police force in operation for over 30 years. They want past secrets kept secret. They have extensive resources, and operate by their own rules. They enlist a crooked psychiatrist and a pliable prosecutor. Lisbeth is then charged with attempted murder.

As the movie progresses, this rogue "police" force sees the "Millennium" magazine as a threat too. "Millennium" is too closely aligned with Lisbeth. They puts pressure on Mikael and his staff, sending them threatening emails, planting illegal drugs and eavesdropping. They try to intimidate by any means possible. This agency then hires an assassin to kill Mikael.

Then comes Lisbeth's court trial. The prosecutor emphasizes Lisbeth's past, notes extensively her time locked up in a mental institution. The prosecutor wants Lisbeth returned to the same place as before, the one with the crooked psychiatrist. But the defense hasn't given up, revealing contrary evidence, weakening the prosecution's case.

Lisbeth Salander is a compelling character. Noomi Rapace spent a year and half delving into the psyche of Lisbeth, immersed herself in the role - and at times Noomi couldn't separate herself from the fictional character until filming was complete. The end is complex, but deeply satisfying. What a trilogy. One could only wish the story would continue.



Field of Dreams

There are baseball movies, but nothing really compares to Field of Dreams. This movie sets the standard by which other baseball films are measured. Popular in its day, it has only grown in appeal. Today a double DVD edition is available. Everybody wants to be associated, including baseball legends George Brett, Johnny Bench and Bret Saberhagen, who all make special appearances in the updated extra features.

Like many good movies, the story started out as a novel, Shoeless Joe, written by W.P. Kinsella, a Canadian who saw something many missed in the tragic 1919 World Series between the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago White Sox. A World Series rocked by scandal, where many of the White Sox players were charged with playing sub-par, throwing the games for gamblers. Shoeless Joe was one of the players so charged. However, Shoeless Joe's statistics actually went up during the series.

Field of Dreams centers around city-boy turned farmer Ray Kinsella. Never acting on his dreams until now he tells his wife, Annie, he wants to build a baseball field out in the middle of nowhere, right where their crops are growing. She reluctantly agrees to go along, watching a valuable portion of their land plowed under. The project also drains their savings. Their economic livelihood goes from strained to desperate.

Making matters worse, and on more of a whim than substance, Ray then drives to Boston so he can talk to the recluse Terrance Mann (aka J.D. Salinger in the novel), noted author and baseball historian. Their first meeting ends in a disaster. But through a strange turn of events, Ray and Terrance are soon on their way to Chisholm, Minnesota to track down a ball player who had only one appearance in the majors, dedicating himself to being a town doctor instead.

In the end, though, Ray realizes his dream - of building that baseball field - was actually meant as a reuniting with his estranged father, an opportunity to set things right. Good movies will do that, appealing to the viewer on several levels, whether it's sports, community, literary, or someplace in-between, with each person seeing something different and in ways that only continue to grow.



The Debt

The Debt is a well thought out film. It's an adaptation of another movie, going through several refinements. The Debt is a spy thriller, covering a span of 30 years.

The movie starts in 1965 with three Mossad agents in East Berlin whose mission is to bring a doctor, a WWII butcher to justice. The evidence against him is overwhelming. Nevertheless he is protected by the Communist Government. After much planning the agents succeed in capturing him, but can't get him back across the East Berlin wall. The East German police search everywhere for the doctor.

The Mossad agent's predicament worsens when the doctor escapes, but in a valiant act one of agents shoots him just before he's free. Justice accomplished - not quite what the agents envisioned, yet satisfactory nonetheless. They come home heroes.

But it's all a big lie.

More than halfway into the film, we see that the captive was never shot and managed to get away. The truth haunts all three of the agents. After 30 years one is driven into depression, another is constantly tormented and the third has learned to accepted this lie, at least on the surface.

Helen Mirren anchors The Debt. We see her as the young, attractive agent in East Berlin and 30 years afterwords. There are other reputable actors including: Sam Worthington, Tom Wilkenson and Jessica Chastin, but Mirren is the one who makes the difference between a good movie and an excellent one. The film is dependent on her.

Mirren is a seasoned actress. She's fun to watch, and like wine only gets better with age. No one gives a more compelling performance.


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